Commentary

The new normal: business and cities disrupt the Brussels bubble

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As we gear up for the new European Commission, many things have changed since 2009. While the rise of eurosceptic and populist voices in the European Parliament grabbed the headlines, it is worth paying attention to more subtle but no less significant currents that are shifting the balances of power and influence within the EU - particularly on the politics surrounding the low carbon transition, in itself a major disruptive force to the ‘normal’.

Business: not one bloc

A key disruption is how low carbon business champions are increasingly breaking ranks from “old fashioned” industry groups. Unilever’s recent departure from lobby group BusinessEurope to pursue partnerships with more ‘likeminded’ businesses is just the latest manifestation of the growing realisation that such dated business groups cannot represent the interests of their industries in EU political debates.

While BusinessEurope established itself as an authoritative hurdle, or even block, to the low carbon transition in Europe, new ‘winners’ within business have emerged. As the low carbon transition has moved from policy papers to action on the ground, a flurry of new business voices have realised that the transition needs them to build the new wind turbines, power lines, and smart demand devices to do it.

We now see leading actors in insulation, construction, glass and other materials actively supporting energy savings and climate action; copper and cable makers, IT, smart and resource efficient technology providers strongly advocating for a resilient, modern and low carbon Europe with  global excellence in these sectors; and large energy companies joining a call by over 40 businesses and trade bodies for European leaders to fix the ETS.

Beyond the growing number of low carbon advocates, the progressive business movement is also increasing its reach and collaboration. Just this summer, the Prince of Wales Corporate Leaders Group, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, The Climate Group and others launched “We Mean Business”, a coalition to represent the world’s most influential businesses that are calling for ambitious climate policy and bold climate action.

Cities: how the local is shifting the national and international

Another key disruption comes from local authorities getting better organised and starting to defend their interests at national and regional level. With a better understanding of how their experiences on the ground relate to the key energy challenges facing Europe as a whole, city authorities have increasingly realised that their innovative and collaborative solutions to energy, transport and resource management can provide a valuable input into EU-wide policies. 

As the decisions made in Brussels rely on local implementation, city networks like Energy Cities have enabled local mayors to become more proactive advocates for the kind of progressive solutions they know make sense and want to see more of in their cities. Cities also know that low ambition on EU wide climate and energy goals exposes their citizens and economies to uncontrollable risks.  As a result, cities are challenging the political direction that will both determine the investment available to them and help manage their climate and energy security risks - such as calling on Heads to agree a much more ambitious 2030 climate and energy package than the Commission is proposing.

Beyond specific policy areas, the elevation of city voices in high-level decision making also plays into broader political debates – notably the widespread scepticism towards political elites across the EU. As a level of government that is much closer to citizens, mayors who have come out against national government positions often voice opinions in line with the public mood. As a stark example, Warsaw’s Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz–Waltz recently condemned her national government’s opposition to the proposed EU 2030 climate and energy targets as unambitious, undemocratically decided, and out of line with the EU’s long-term decarbonisation goal. Despite being a senior figure from the ruling party, Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s frank comments questioned the party line to chime with polling showing over 85% citizen support for legally-binding EU targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

How will the ‘normal’ cope?

The new voices in the debate disrupt who can ‘speak for’ a Member State or a sector; moving beyond homogenised concepts of ‘Poland’ or ‘business’ to provide more nuanced perspectives of those with a stake in the game. As the low carbon transition continues to accelerate, we can expect to see this influence and confidence of new voices in cities and business to continue to grow.

But how will the Brussels institutions cope with these shifts as they play out over the next five years? On one hand, while the European Parliament is still to reveal its true potential, the nominees put forward by Member States risk forming yet again a male-dominated same-as-usual European Commission under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker, himself often caricatured as the ‘old-school Brussels insider’. On the other, we see a surge of new, empowered voices realising their political influence and disrupting the ‘normal’ political balance between EU institutions, governments, and traditional lobbies.

In the midst of concerns over how the EU can represent its citizens, we can’t yet know whether this rapidly evolving, diverse and disruptive ‘new normal’ will be more destabilising or more democratic – but then again, isn’t that normal?