The "Green Deal" is put on pause

The Corona crisis has marginalised climate protection - but the EU is sticking to its ambitious goals. Chancellor Merkel must now come up with the funds.

by Eric Bonse


It was the first big moment for the new EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: a few days after taking office in December 2019, she outlined the "European Green Deal". Her programme of superlatives was intended to make people forget the crisis of the European Union and offer a new, positive vision.

According to von der Leyen, the European economy must become climate-neutral by 2050. This means that companies should not emit more carbon dioxide than can be offset by natural or technical means. She compared the efforts required to achieve this with the Apollo mission of the 1960s, saying: "This is Europe's man-in-the-moon moment."

Six months later, Ursula's lunar voyage has taken a back seat. The corona pandemic and its dramatic impact on the economy and society dominate the EU agenda in Brussels. Von der Leyen has her hands full as she tries to push through the billions-of-euros recovery plan to mitigate the Corona crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also had to throw her plans overboard. The Green Deal is no longer the focus of the six-month German EU presidency, which began on July 1. Instead it will now be a "Corona Presidency" - everything revolves around the fight against the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis.

In a speech to the European Parliament at the start of the German Presidency, Merkel only briefly touched on climate protection. She did indeed commit herself to the goal of climate neutrality by 2050, which she wants to "legally enshrine". But she did not announce any new initiatives or measures.

Under pressure from all sides

This feeds the concern among climate activists and the Green Party that the Green Deal may be diluted. "The Federal Government must make the its Council Presidency the Climate Presidency," said Franziska Brantner, the Green Party's European policy spokesperson in the Bundestag, adding that Merkel has so far failed to offer a clear stance.

The Chancellor is under pressure from all sides. German industry, for example, is demanding a focus on reconstruction and economic development. The head of the largest parliamentary group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, is stepping on the brakes. In view of the biggest crisis since the Second World War, he said, the Green Deal could not be "simply implemented as if nothing had happened". This would be "legislation flying blind", said the Christian Social Union party politician.

The head of the Commission von der Leyen is in a similar position to Merkel. She too faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) politician wants to push ahead with her conservative-green vision despite the crisis. On the other hand, on an almost daily basis her Brussels authority has to approve new rescue plans for companies and entire industrial sectors that still come from the "old", CO2-intensive economy. 

Germany's billions of euros in aid for Lufthansa have shown how difficult such decisions are for the Commission. It approved the German rescue plan only after a lengthy delay and attaching conditions. But Brussels did not insist on cancelling domestic flights, as the French government did with Air France. Climate protection was put on the back burner.

It is not only a question of weighing up saving jobs and protecting the climate. It is also important to make the transition to the green economy fair and socially acceptable, avoiding protests like the yellow vests in France. The EU Commission has proposed a "Just Transition Fund" for this very reason.

But coal-dependent countries like Poland are not satisfied with this aid fund - they are demanding more money from Brussels. At the same time, Italy, Spain and other countries shaken by the Corona crisis are desperately waiting for EU aid. The right balance is fiercely contested among EU countries; it has become part of the dispute over recovery and the EU budget.

The Green Deal is not yet in the bag; only at the end of this year will we see how much the EU really values climate protection. And whether those dragging their heels -- like Poland and the Czech Republic -- will be won over. At least a change in thinking is emerging: For example, stimulus funds flowing into the crisis regions will be tied to climate protection goals. 

According to Brussels, the intention is not to subsidise "old industries" but to invest in the future. That offers some hope. But it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to make Europe climate-neutral. But there is still a lot of time between now and 2050. The moon landing was repeatedly postponed - and in the end it worked out.


Eric Bonse is a freelance journalist and has been reporting on European policy from Brussels since 2004. He runs the "Lost in Europe” blog.