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A Green New Deal for Europe

Europe’s rising far right want to make the EU elections a vote on defending national identity. For the socialist left, the elections are about defending the planet itself.

Climate change protesters block one of the main roads into Edinburgh's city center on April 16, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Generating 100 percent of energy from renewables by 2050, improving drinking water infrastructure, guaranteeing a “green” job to every adult . . . the radical policies of the Green New Deal have already become talking points across the US political spectrum. Polls tell us that the measures proposed by democratic-socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the grassroots Sunrise Movement already enjoy the backing of 81 percent of registered voters. Now the enthusiasm for this ambitious project is spreading to the Left across the Atlantic.

However, with elections for the European Union’s Brussels parliament slated for May 23-26, the call for a Green New Deal is not yet part of mainstream debate in the old continent. Indeed, despite the process of economic integration, European politics largely remain divided up along national lines — even when it comes to dealing with civilizational challenges like climate catastrophe.

If in Germany and the Scandinavian countries ecologist parties are well-established, this is far from true everywhere. In Spain, before the 2008 crisis, mainstream politicians were too busy promoting property speculation to worry about the environment. Then the Great Recession became the top priority, much as in Greece and Italy. In France, less hard-hit by the crisis, the center-left Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) backed François Hollande’s government in 2012-17, but achieved little notable progress. More widely, the European Union’s crisis in the face of rising nationalisms and Brexit casts doubt on its ability to take decisive action on the climate.

Yet we can also see signs of a change in mood, especially thanks to the recent surge of the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion movements. It seems the climate is finally becoming part of the political conversation. And if scattered ecologist parties have thus far made little impact in imposing change, this only increases the radical left’s duty to confront the seriousness of the climate crisis. Promoting a Green New Deal offers not just a first answer to this problem, but also a way of transforming the European Union’s dominant economic paradigm.

Red and Green

If we want an example of a force on the European radical left that has proposed a strong eco-socialist agenda, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise has especially led the way. During his 2017 presidential campaign (in which he secured almost 20 percent of the vote), Mélenchon succeeded in positioning his ambitious project for the ecological transition at the heart of the political conversation, despite most of his rivals’ obsession with immigration and national identity.

Where the liberal-green EELV had never attracted many voters beyond the progressive middle classes in France’s big cities (a similar electoral base to Emmanuel Macron’s), France Insoumise won wide working-class support for a new vision of ecological transformation. In 2017 Mélenchon turned the focus away from individual consumers’ responsibility to a call for state action, combining a 100 percent renewable energy system with the protection of social rights. Two years later, the old-school leader is surely happy to see Ocasio-Cortez, the world’s most famous millennial politician, advancing a similar discourse at the heart of Empire.

In Britain and Spain — home to Europe’s other most promising left-wing movements — progress in advancing ecosocialist politics has proven rather patchier. The Labour Party has doubtless significantly changed course since September 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader. If the environment has rarely been central to the UK policy agenda, measures to tackle climate change and other environmental challenges were included in Labour’s manifesto for the 2017 general election. Yet the aim of decarbonizing the British economy was not a central theme of the party’s platform in that contest, or indeed explicitly intertwined with its central aim of overcoming austerity, as in the case of both Mélenchon’s and AOC’s proposals.

There was, however, a radicalization of Labour’s approach in late 2018, after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its alarming report calling for rapid action to limit global warming to 1.5°C. At its annual conference, Labour published a policy document entitled “The Green Transformation,” and vowed to be “the greenest government ever.” Leading Labour figures have since that point advanced detailed plans to decarbonize the British economy, while fostering prosperity and equality. With a rhetoric reminiscent of AOC’s Green New Deal, Labour’s shadow business secretary has voiced the party’s intention to “transform the UK through a green jobs revolution, tackling the environmental crisis in a way that brings hope and prosperity back to parts of the UK that have been held back for too long.”  The British Parliament’s declaration of “climate emergency” suggests that Corbyn’s party’s green turn is deep, and it is already having serious impact on British politics.

As for Spain, the anti-austerity party Podemos has since its foundation advocated a transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Added to that, since 2016 it has run in elections in coalition with the ecologist party Equo, among other progressive forces. Yet until recently Podemos’s discourse subordinated the ecological transition to short-term economic priorities such as reducing unemployment and job insecurity. A very telling example were the pamphlets that explained the party’s environmental proposals during the 2015 and 2016 election campaigns: they presented the promotion of renewable energy as a means of cutting electricity prices, rather than an aim in itself.

Yet Podemos’s rhetoric has changed sharply in recent months, not least since the Fridays for Future movement reached Spain. Pablo Iglesias’s party has recently presented its view of a “green and purple horizon,” putting feminism and ecologism front and center in its campaign for April’s general election as for this month’s European and local contests. The party’s most recent manifesto integrates ecological and industrial policies, sets ambitious emission-reduction targets, and specifies the estimated costs and job-generating potential of the proposed transformations. However, the lack of specific policy plans similar to the ones published by France Insoumise and Labour, together with the weak attention Iglesias devoted to climate change in pre-election debates, suggests that Podemos’s green turn needs to be deepened.

Other forces on the Spanish left are also highlighting environmental concerns. Más Madrid, the Íñigo Errejón-led split from Podemos in the Madrid region, has proposed a decarbonization plan that includes both ambitious policies to promote green jobs and measures such as public “objects libraries” to reduce unnecessary consumption, together with shortening of the food supply chain.

However, this stands at odds with mayor Manuela Carmena’s (co-leader of Más Madrid) promotion of a massive housing and offices building project in the north of the city, promoted by a bank and rejected by ecologist organizations such as Ecologistas en Acción. More positive action is on offer in Barcelona, where radical-left mayor Ada Colau’s government has presented an ambitious plan to reduce polluting emissions in the city and has set ecological transformation as a key element of her ongoing re-election campaign.

A Path Full of Obstacles

Even amid this mixed picture, we can see that the first step has been taken: more and more radical left parties — often pushed by movements such as Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion — are embracing the need for a Green New Deal in Europe. Yet this awakening takes place in a moment of weakness for the anti-austerity left, which only a few years ago seemed prepared to unseat the neoliberal elite from power in several European countries.

France Insoumise is lagging behind in the polls, Podemos lost 1.5 million votes in the last general election, and the Labour Party seems trapped in the uncertainties of Brexit. Trade union backing for a Green New Deal is virtually nonexistent: in France and Spain, the main workers’ organizations still see ecological transformation as a potential threat to jobs creation. They are yet to develop plans to guarantee that the decarbonization of economy fosters high-quality employment, as a group of union members from New York state have done. In the UK, Unite is using its lobbying power to advocate the expansion of Heathrow Airport instead of fighting for a green transition. As Jane McAlevey explained in a recent article for Jacobin, the much-needed alliances between trade unions and environmentalists remain rare.

Beyond the radical left and a smattering of ecologist parties, no major European political actor seems to have recognized the need for a deep economic transformation in order to slow climate change. Spain’s Socialist Party–led government appointed a specialist to head a newly created ministry for the ecological transition, but the party’s emissions-reduction targets are unambitious, and its tight links with the energy oligopoly raises major doubts about its real will to force companies to abandon fossil energy. Similarly in France, Emmanuel Macron has abandoned his initial “environmentalist” posture — as a petition signed by more than two million people recently reminded him. Indeed, his only green minister, the well-known activist Nicolas Hulot, resigned after noting the president’s indifference towards climate questions.

Despite such divisions between the neoliberal center and ecologists, the official Green parties in the largest eurozone economies also offer little radicalism. In France, EELV’s leader has expressed his support for “free enterprise and the market economy,” and in Germany Die Grünen are more and more focused on attracting conservative voters, as well as governing in coalition with Angela Merkel’s CDU in several regions. As the ecological crisis becomes more alarming, the ambition of their proposed solutions has, if anything, waned.

If it may seem easier to coordinate effective climate action at the Europe-wide level, in fact the European Union’s own economic dogmas continue to throw up barriers to this. EU-imposed budget deficit limits and the rules that protect free competition restrict the kind of directed investment that could deeply transform Europe’s economies. Nonetheless, today we can also see that European elites’ fears of mounting popular discontent (already visible in Brexit and the rise of the far right) have brought a certain flexibility in the application of austerity rules, and thus a measure of opportunity.

Beyond such structural constraints, the European left’s ability to provide continent-wide solutions is also hampered by its own lack of unity. Nationally based parties have launched their own Green New Deal proposals, but these are too small-scale to have a general impact, and lack strong and explicit coordination. Forging spaces of collaboration should be the first step towards an European-wide progressive Green New Deal agenda, for which France Insoumise’s detailed manifesto for the European elections provide a good basis.

The European Union’s Hollow Rhetoric

This European level is also important because the European Union has since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol traditionally been the driving force of international negotiations to reduce the emissions that provoke global warming. The resistance of the United States — which never ratified the protocol — to any engagement to reduce its huge share of the world’s emissions has allowed the European Union to appear almost like an environmentalist force, masking its historic ecological debt to the Global South. This EU-US contrast has become even sharper since the election of Donald Trump, who has decided to pull out of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

For now, the European Union’s objectives remain unimpressive. It has the aim of reducing its CO2 and CO2-equivalent emissions by 40 percent in relation to the 1990 levels by 2030, a short-term step designed to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2100. However, the slow progress achieved thus far raises serious doubts about the feasibility of the intended ecological transition without a deep transformation of EU economic policy, which currently subordinates all objectives to the sacrosanct principles of free competition and austerity.

Indeed, as several NGOs have noted, EU-promoted free trade agreements continue to enhance the power of fossil fuel business. So-called Investment Court Systems allow companies to legally challenge any European regulation that allegedly threatens its profits — a mechanism included in the EU-Canada free-trade agreement approved in 2017. The very fact of endlessly expanding free trade is challenged by organizations such as France Insoumise, which advocates a “social and ecological protectionism.” This would imply higher tariffs for products that are manufactured at great distance from their final destinations.

According to a Climate Action Network Europe report, the European Union is off target: not a single country in the bloc has taken the necessary measures to reach the emission-reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement. The report emphasizes that even the countries that seem more ambitious when negotiating targets and strategies at the EU level are lagging behind when it comes to implementing domestic policies that really reduce their emissions. The apparently good scores for rich Nordic countries such as Sweden do not include the emissions coming from the production abroad of imported goods. The EU project of reducing emissions without threatening the benefits of fossil fuel companies and other high-emission sectors, such as the car industry, airlines, or industrial farming and stockbreeding, seems impossible.

European neoliberalism sets an extra obstacle for a Green New Deal: neoliberal politicians’ systematic defense of the interests of big business and the oligarchy undermines the popular legitimacy of measures directed toward ecological transition. The crisis in Macron’s government provoked by the gilets jaunes protests in France is fine evidence of this.

Macron’s attempt to raise a tax on fuel — which would have hit lower- and middle-class people in rural areas and small towns hardest — while preserving tax favors for big companies and rich individuals has provoked the biggest popular revolt in France in decades. Mélenchon’s France Insoumise offered an exemplary response, combining its support for the movement with alternative proposals for  funding the ecological transition, not on the backs of the popular classes. Of course, the progressive tax reform and public intervention Mélenchon proposed are anathema to the neoliberal Macron and his counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

Mélenchon and Ocasio-Cortez have understood that making big business pay for the ecological transition and providing material gains to the popular classes is a vital part of obtaining support for the Green New Deal as well as changes in our everyday consumption. This also helps differentiate the radical left from reactionary forces like Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, which demagogically supports the gilets jaunes while ignoring the climate issue altogether. The far right’s inability to answer this question is yet more reason to place it at the heart of the Left’s own agenda.

Reasons for Hope

With the EU elections just two weeks away, the current state of climate politics is contradictory. The IPCC recently published its most pressing report so far, warning that 2°C global warming would imply a much more catastrophic climate change than previously expected. The report comes at a time when the United States is ruled by a close ally of big fossil-fuel burners, and neoliberalism and a climate-skeptic far right are battling for political hegemony.

Yet there are reasons for hope. In the United States, the prospect of a democratic socialist president with a Green New Deal agenda seems increasingly likely. This would not only reinvigorate Europe’s radical left, but could push ecologist and social-democratic forces to adopt less radically neoliberal positions, as Spain and Portugal’s ruling Socialist parties have done under pressure from the radical left.

Across the continent, the new forces of the radical left will indeed be key to changing Europe’s agenda. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could soon take over the UK government, in a moment when new social movements for climate justice are appearing and growing. So far, Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion have not mobilized as many people as the post-2008 anti-austerity movements did, but they are undoubtedly a major source of hope for a European ecologist movement hitherto dominated by NGOs and small activist bodies. Alliances between older green circles and these new movements are key to pushing for further political action for climate justice, including at the institutional level.

Building a social majority for such action will surely demand alliances between ecologists and labor. In this sense, it is imperative that the green turn recently made by left-wing anti-austerity parties in Europe deepens and spreads to other workers’ organizations, finally treating environmental questions as part and parcel of building an economy fit for purpose. The horizon may look dark: scientists’ forecasts on climate change and its effects are appalling, and the short-term European political context does not look promising. But under the surface of electoral politics, the seeds of a Green New Deal are already being planted.