Opinion & Analysis

Winds of change: The EU’s green agenda after the European Parliament election


  • The next European Commission and Parliament are likely to place security and competitiveness at the centre of their quest for a more geopolitical Europe.
  • With concerns about the costs of the green transition, growing trade tensions between the US and China, and uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the US presidential election and Russia’s war on Ukraine, the EU will probably find it much harder to make further progress on climate action over the next five years.
  • These geopolitical developments – and the way the EU responds to them – will have far-reaching consequences for the EU’s trade and technology decisions, fossil fuel phase-out, and climate diplomacy.
  • The case for climate action remains clear, including its role in European security and competitiveness. In this challenging context, climate progressives will have to deploy compelling narratives, strategic resourcing, and diplomatic engagement to advance the best possible climate agenda during the EU’s next institutional cycle

In the 2019 European Parliament election, the centre right and centre left lost votes in multiple directions. There was a surge in support for the far right and for the liberal parties that make up the Renew Europe (RE) group in the European Parliament, as well as for parties campaigning on a climate and environmental protection platform – the so-called green wave. The European public’s support for the climate agenda not only strengthened the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) group in the parliament, it also moved the green transition up the list of priorities for mainstream parties.

This paved the way for a European Commission which put the green transition at the centre of its mandate. During its term it launched the European Green Deal in 2019, spearheaded by its newly elected president Ursula von der Leyen; adopted the European Climate Law in 2021, making the European Union’s target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 legally binding and setting an emissions target for 2030; and approved the Fit-for-55 package of measures to work towards these targets.

There are several factors that could support further climate action in the coming years, such as the lower costs of green technologies, public awareness of extreme weather events, and efforts to reduce energy dependency on authoritarian regimes. But progress during the EU’s next institutional cycle will likely be more difficult than in 2019-2024.

Ahead of the 2024 European Parliament election, the continued implementation of the European Green Deal is hanging in the balance for four main reasons.

Firstly, following their gains in 2019 and in many national elections since then, far-right parties – which are typically anti-climate policy action – look set to increase their share of seats in the European Parliament after this summer’s election, making new ambitious EU climate and environmental legislation more difficult.

Secondly, the populist right is capitalising on cost-of-living concerns among the population and framing the climate agenda as the latest imposition on member state governments by an internationalist conspiracy. This is making governments around the EU more wary of supporting new European Green Deal measures, a trend which could worsen given that the deal’s next phase – with its focus on the housing and transport sectors – is set to affect individuals and families more visibly than the first phase.

Thirdly, although many European companies support low-carbon transitions, resistance to regulations is increasing, in particular among business organisations, with calls for a stronger, narrow focus on competitiveness.

Finally, the broader geopolitical environment – with the upcoming presidential election in the United States; major trade tensions between China and the West; the evolution of Russia’s war on Ukraine – and Europe’s response to it will affect not only the EU’s political bandwidth to prioritise the climate file, but also the effectiveness of its own climate measures. For example, should the situation in Ukraine deteriorate radically, including because of a possible withdrawal of support by the next US administration, the EU could face an existential crisis, leading to either a push for more integration or strong internal conflicts obstructing cooperation. This would affect climate policies in ways that are difficult to fully grasp today.

This paper will explore how such developments could affect the EU’s climate policy under its next mandate, considering the consequences of a more right-leaning EU and of the various geopolitical scenarios that could unfold over the coming years. Based on these scenarios, it will then set out how European policymakers can best make progress on climate and environmental action despite these adverse conditions.

There are many uncertainties about how external factors will develop, as well as about the actual results of the European Parliament election and the choices incoming policymakers will make. The scenarios described later in this paper should be seen as a basis for discussions, not as projections of what will happen, and serve to prepare policymakers to nonetheless advance the EU’s climate and environmental policy.

The EU’s climate forecast:
Current forecasts suggest that the parties in the political centre of the European Parliament – the European People’s Party (EPP), RE, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – that approved von der Leyen as president of the European Commission in 2019 will retain a majority, albeit smaller than their current one, after the election in June, with the EPP likely remaining the largest political group in parliament.

It is likely that this weakened “super grand coalition” of the three centrist parties will continue to set the agenda and approve the next commission president according to political guidelines that contain most of the ambition of the green deal – though they are likely to need the support of the Brothers of Italy or the Greens/EFA to do so. As the EPP’s candidate for president, and with a relatively solid campaign – notwithstanding queries over recent appointments and investments – von der Leyen currently stands a good chance at winning a second term. Given that the green deal has been a centrepiece of von der Leyen’s agenda during her first mandate, and indeed seems to have secured her the support of the European Greens for her second term, it is tempting to expect more of the same from the next commission if she is reappointed. But exactly what this set-up would imply will depend on an array of factors ranging from relations between the three parties to the internal dynamics of the EPP group. If the next commission includes an ambitious executive vice-president with a strong mandate for climate action, there could be compromises between EPP, Renew, and S&D on the most important climate files. This could result in only minor step-backs on the Fit-for-55 measures, even if new advancements on agriculture and forestry become difficult.

But these three party groups and some others could also approve a new commission with less climate ambition. The signs of backlash against the EU’s green agenda, most notably from farmers but also from some business organisations and parts of the EPP, seem to have already taken their toll on von der Leyen’s willingness to push the green deal through in recent months. The commission’s recent communication on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 90 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2040 only contained relatively muted calls on the agricultural sector. The “land, food and bioeconomy” section of the plan was buried on page 20 of the 27-page document. In this scenario, climate responsibility could be rolled into a focus on competitiveness – which prioritises empowering European industry above all – reflected by only a strong executive vice-president tasked with competitiveness. Ambitions for post-2030 could be scaled down and reviews of existing regulation result in a softening of requirements.

With the EPP framing much of the debate in Brussels and EPP member parties in government in approximately ten out of 27 member states – more than those of any other political group – the competitiveness agenda is likely to be central to the next commission whichever scenario unfolds. The competitiveness argument has already affected the current commission’s climate action in recent months. Negotiations on the commission’s proposed 2040 target for a 90 per cent greenhouse gas reduction compared to 1990 levels (on which the next commission will make a legislative proposal) saw the final communication’s wording weakened to make it conditional on several factors, including protecting industrial competitiveness and the existence of a “level playing field with international partners”. And while the EPP does not yet have a position on the EU’s 2040 target, some EPP members of the European Parliament have proposed a slow-down of new EU regulation in order to protect businesses.

In the negotiations on the European Climate Law in 2021, the EPP also advocated a somewhat lower target for 2030 than the 55 per cent reduction that was agreed, though it claimed that the result was closer to its position than that of S&D and the Greens. And though it initially pushed for a greater use of forests and agricultural land as natural carbon sinks to reduce greenhouse gas in negotiations on the Fit-for-55 package, some EPP parties in government in member states with influential forest industries, such as Finland and Sweden, are now pushing back against this. Furthermore, the EPP has already tried to appease farmers by opposing the nature restoration law and the sustainable use of pesticides regulation. The focus on agriculture in the next phase could also test the EPP’s cohesion on post-2030 climate policy instruments.

Relations between the three centrist party groups will also be important, including in negotiations this summer for approving the commission president and, later in the autumn, the individual commissioners. Many of the Fit-for-55 legislative acts passed so far, such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) and the reform of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) were adopted by a broad majority in the parliament after discussions between mainly EPP, S&D, and RE, and were championed by an alliance of parties on the left and the Greens/EFA, which is set to be smaller after the elections as well. Some parts of the political groups in the centre which are not campaigning on a green agenda are also wary about the ‘greenlash’ underway in Europe and the consequences of being too closely associated with the green agenda in an environment in which it may not be voters’ primary concern.

Furthermore, if the far right is, as predicted, a major winner in this election, it could lower the next European Parliament’s climate ambitions in votes on specific legislation. At the beginning of this year, ECFR published a forecast of the composition of the next European Parliament, which concluded that the radical right Identity and Democracy (ID) group could win a large number of seats in this election and emerge as the third largest group in the new parliament. The same study tested how this projected parliament would vote on a key piece of existing climate legislation – the proposal to strengthen car CO2 emission performance standards – if national parties were to vote in the same way as they did when the legislation was passed but with their projected allocations of MEPs after the election in June 2024. It found that the proposal, which was successfully adopted in June 2022, would have only passed with a very narrow majority.

About the Authors:
Susi Dennison is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the director of ECFR’s European Power programme. Her topics of focus include strategy, politics, and cohesion in European foreign policy; climate and energy; migration; and the toolkit for Europe as a global actor.

Mats Engström is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in Stockholm. He has been involved in EU policymaking and analysis since the 1980s, including as deputy state secretary at the Swedish Ministry for the Environment and as a political adviser to the foreign minister.

Carla Hobbs is the deputy director of the European Power programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to joining ECFR in 2018, Hobbs worked at the European External Action Service as a Political Officer in the Delegation of the European Union to Chile and previously as a Junior Professional in the EU Delegation to Trinidad and Tobago.

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