The European Union – its institutions, its member states, and its citizens – have about 500 days left to come up with a plan to breathe new life into the European project. This self-imposed time constraint concentrates minds: it’s a chance to start afresh with 27 Member States after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 (as currently planned) and to pitch a new European vision to citizens before the European Parliament elections of spring 2019.
The EU has had a good run on its original vision and narrative, providing peace to millions of Europeans coming out of WWII and the Cold War, projecting its core values – the rule of law, democracy and human rights – to the world, and creating a single market first for coal and steel, and soon enough for all goods, people, and services. But the crises of the past decade – economical, humanitarian, political, etc. – seem to have left the EU with something of an identity crisis, and in need of a re-boot for its core vision and principles.
The European Commission and European Council have risen to the task. The Commission, under the leadership of Jean-Claude Juncker, has published reams of useful material to encourage a period of reflection on what shape the EU could take and the options that are available on how to deal with security, globalisation, finance, social issues, etc. The European Council, under the leadership of Donald Tusk, has set a challenging agenda of important topics from migration to institutional issues for European heads of states and governments to run through.
But one issue that faces every single one of us is conspicuous by its absence: how best to make the transition to a low-carbon economy. It gets few explicit mentions and very little attention. This is startling as the issue is of course inexorably interlinked with the future of Europe: there is no EU challenge, driver or priority that does not have a direct link to either climate change as a threat, or decarbonisation as an opportunity, sometimes both.
Europe’s security and prosperity both depend on a stable climate, successful adaptation and an orderly transition to a decarbonised economy. Europe is undergoing radical societal and economic changes, with ageing populations, different labour needs, etc. Decarbonisation can present real transitional challenges for the workers and communities affected, but new technologies and the transition to a clean economy offer new opportunities. A breakdown in trust in European institutions and their legitimacy undermines climate governance and gets in the way of effective delivery. Conversely, with 9 out of 10 Europeans identifying climate change as a serious problem, the inability to deal with climate threats will further undermine trust in elites.
If the direction of travel agreed in the Future of Europe process does not work for Europe’s energy and climate transition, it will have failed to meet Europe’s biggest societal challenge, and is unlikely to work for any of Europe’s other fundamental challenges. Put simply, European leaders must put sustainability and climate governance at the heart of discussions on the future of Europe.
First, by making the transition to a low-carbon economy part of a new European vision. Then, by establishing a bold, far-sighted new narrative for what the EU is for – from sharing burdens to reaping opportunities and accelerating and managing the risks of the transition. And finally, by integrating climate into planned discussions on the EU’s economic, social and financial policies. Five hundred days won’t be too much for this.