State of the European Union speech Underplays Climate Crisis and the Green Deal Future

Lead candidates Duarte and Rhia assess Ursula von der Leyen's EU address, its climate impact, and the 2024 European elections.

Sep 29, 2023
A climate protest. The sign reads, 'There is no planet B'

Standing in front of the European Parliament for her State of the European Union address earlier this month, Ursula von der Leyen delivered an address that resembled more a motivational speech praising her leadership rather than a balanced assessment of the successes and failures the Bloc has achieved under her tenure.

Praising the Union’s strong investments in digital technologies while calling for more dialogue on renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and adding new member-states, von der Leyen also came out strongly against the Chinese electric vehicle market, but remained passive on climate action. Her silence on the EU’s 2024 plans for new emissions reductions, on banning fossil fuel subsidies across the Union and how it will approach the upcoming United Nations climate summit in Dubai, COP28, casts a long shadow following another record-breaking year in terms of climate extremes and damage across Europe. 

Cross-Border Issues

Droughts and fires have gripped Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, damaging farmlands, rural communities, and urban centers as well as our protected areas and environmental systems. This loss and damage is beyond environmental.

In April, Spain’s agricultural sector had already accepted that it would not meet its production goals. Responsible for 2.7% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employing over 775,000 people, the agricultural sector’s output has direct effects on supply chains and related industries - making them an integral part of the country’s economy. Spain’s crop failures have directly impacted locals, with a 16% increase in food prices compounded by rising inflation - but also the rest of Europe, which imports 63% of Spain’s agri-food products. It is no surprise then that the country approved a €2.2 billion emergency relief package to support its farmers and combat water scarcity in May.

Across the border in Portugal, similar conditions are impacting the Algarve’s citrus production to the point of financial collapse. This news comes as Volkswagen’s Autoeuropa car plant located in Palmela, near Lisbon, announced a nine-week production freeze alongside layoffs and salary cuts as it reacts to its supply chain being disrupted by severe flooding in Slovenia. “I do not think there is any car circulating in Europe that doesn’t have at least one part produced in Portugal,” notes Portuguese prime minister António Costa, “It has nothing to do with the situation in Portugal, nor [with the Autoeuropa] factory, but the floods in Slovenia. The opposite could have happened.”

Climate change transcends borders. We are witnessing a crisis that is significantly affecting our economy by disrupting key productive sectors across member states and creating interconnected consequences within the common European market. This is something you would expect the President of the European Commission to take bold action on, but solutions were rare to come by in her address. While von der Leyen has shown some ambition on taking climate action seriously - on paper the European Green Deal could actually overperform on its emission reductions - the Union is still not meeting its fair share under the Paris Agreement to avoid 1.5 degrees of warming.

If anything, this SOTEU revealed her lack of vision and eagerness to accelerate the climate transition in key sectors like agriculture, energy, manufacturing and transportation that would strongly improve the EU’s overall sustainability. Considering the impact of the Union’s agri-food sector from both an economic and climate perspective (agriculture is responsible for 10.3% of the EU’s emissions) this was a missed opportunity for her to show ambition on sustainable solutions. This is not necessarily surprising as rumours suggest that key Green Deal policies could be dropped in the name of national political gains for the 2024 elections. This, in addition to ongoing disagreements on the future of Europe’s power grid, Union-wide decarbonisation policies and the Bloc’s current climate pledges to limit to 2ºC the temperature increase by 2100, the State of the Union is not as green or unified as von der Leyen suggests. 

Fuelling Uncertainty

As the 2024 European elections loom, von der Leyen is hoping to paint Europe as a unified force capable of tackling the critical issues facing it. “In just under 300 days, Europeans will take to the polls in our unique and remarkable democracy,” the EU President said, “Among them will be millions of first-time voters, the youngest of whom were born in 2008. As they stand in that polling booth, they will think about what matters to them.” War, climate, artificial intelligence and housing were quoted in this order by von der Leyen, and if you look at the polling data from the previous election, climate change and economic growth were the two dominant issues that drove young people to the polls in record numbers and support candidates from center-left and green groups. Volt Europa is one of the parties seeking to capitalize on the demand for sustainable social, economic, and environmental action by creating fit-for-purpose policy. 

Heading into the 2024 elections, young people have identified climate change, education, social inequalities, and unemployment as the key priorities the European Union should be working on. If the SOTEU highlights anything, current political leadership is not on the same page as those set to be the most impacted by their decisions. At a policy level, this means electing representatives that are willing to listen to the public and make hard decisions to future-proof Europe’s socio-economic and ecological systems without bowing to private interests focused on profit margins. 

Already present in the European parliament and part of the voices calling for better socio-economic reform, Volt proposes rapid decarbonisation through increased renewable energy production, removing subsidies for fossil fuels, and implementing Union-wide phase-out targets. In line with von der Leyen’s Green Deal, these policies would also generate significant revenue for governments to reinvest into their communities to future-proof and increase the resilience of critical industries. Such policies are in the best interest of Europe’s future, but attempts to enact them have been limited by conservative parties, such as the EPP and the far-right, who are focused on short-term results and on easy political gains, leading them to get closer to the extreme-right and their type of populist messages. 

A recent Politico poll reports right-wing parties making major advances in the 2024 European election at the expense of the green and centrist parties - potentially threatening the Green Deal and new climate policies. This is not in the best interest of the future of the Union, and will enforce the status quo that we find ourselves in: spending billions of euros on ineffective relief packages to combat climate change damages rather than tackling the issue head on and creating a socio-economic system capable of both mitigating and adapting to climate change. 

What’s next?

The yearly State of the Union speeches might have some climate-pleasing keywords and spell out passive commitments that at a first impression deserve a clap, but the real test comes when policy makers negotiate and vote on policy proposals. Has the current composition of the European Parliament (and of the Council) been making decisions based on science and the interest of citizens?

Considering that conservative lawmakers have successfully blocked cattle-related emissions reductions within the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), actively campaigned against the Nature Restoration Law by orchestrating a misleading disinformation campaign (even when the industry was calling for nature restoration and the law’s approval!), and right-wing governments are pushing back on reducing freight transport emissions - it certainly does not seem so. While the last European elections placed ‘green issues’ quite centrally on the table, as we can see, truly effective progress is still being blocked because progressive and pro-climate parties are under-voted by growing conservative parties in the European Parliament. This is a core reason why, for all candidates of Volt across the EU, the European elections of 2024 will be a decisive crossroad for our future and that of Europe and its much needed leading role in global climate transition.

The 2024 European Election will be happening from June 6th-9th, be part of the change, for a future made in Europe. 

Article by Duarte Costa and Rhia Lopes - Lead Candidates in Portugal for the 2024 European Elections - and Vincent Diringer