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20th Aug 2022

Who speaks for the EU at Paris climate summit?

  • Luxembourg's environment minister Dieschbourg (l) and EU commissioner Canete are seen as complementary figures (Photo: European Commission)

Fame is a relative concept at an international conference on climate change.

The journalist asking a question at a press conference on Friday (11 December) could be forgiven for not knowing that Carole Dieschbourg, Luxembourg's 38-year-old minister for environment, also speaks on behalf of the entire European Union.

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  • French foreign minister Laurent Fabius: "impeccable way of steering this process" (Photo: UNclimatechange)

Even within the EU there will be many people who do not know that Luxembourg currently holds the six-month rotating Council presidency, and that the Green Luxembourgian has been catapulted onto the global stage as one of the faces of the Union.

The journalist asked why the EU was “not present now” at a press conference by the so-called High Ambition Coalition, an ad-hoc alliance formed in recent days in Paris.

The host of the press conference, foreign minister for the Marshall Islands Tony de Brum, introduced her as “the president of the EU”, which was followed by laughter, and then applause.

“Yes, hello, I'm Carole Dieschbourg, minister of environment of Luxembourg, representing the EU. We have [the Council of the EU] presidency at the moment, so I'm present,” she said.

The incident reminded of that often-quoted question from former US diplomat Henry Kissinger, who to call when he wanted to “talk to Europe”.

But here at the climate conference in Paris the many faces of the EU may prove to be an asset rather than a cause for confusion.

The Canete-Dieschbourg tango

The main negotiator on behalf of the EU is Miguel Arias Canete, European commissioner for climate. He has often shared the podium with Dieschbourg, who this semester chairs the meetings of environment ministers of the EU member states.

According to several sources close to the EU delegation, Canete is mainly the man who reaches out to other countries, while Dieschbourg tries to coordinate with the 27 other national ministers, each of which represents an individual party to the treaty they are working on.

That doesn't mean that Dieschbourg does not speak to non-EU negotiators, but her focus is intra-EU, said one EU source who asked to remain anonymous.

This will become increasingly difficult in the coming hours, as Canete may have to make some compromises that go beyond what EU ministers have agreed in their mandate. That will require a lot of bilateral contact back and forth – especially to keep coal-dependant Poland happy.

“[Dieschbourg's] job is to keep EU ministers together,” the contact said, adding that Canete and Dieschbourg also complement each other.

“Canete is quite a dominant person, maybe too harsh, while Dieschbourg can calm people down a bit,” said the contact.

Gender also plays a role.

“She has a lot of good contacts with women,” the source said, adding that personal relations are very important at the climate summit. “A lot is about trust.”

For his part, the Spaniard Canete was able to reach out to Latin American countries, noted Green MEP Bas Eickhout.

“Climate talks can be a bit more rough than regular diplomacy, and Canete is in his element here,” noted the parliamentarian, adding that the long hours of talks and little sleep seem only to reinforce Canete's spirit.

In Paris, the negotiations are taking place on many different levels, often simultaneously.

In that sense it is an asset to have 28 ministers available in addition to lead negotiator Canete, noted Eickhout.

Deploy the Swedes

Those ministers, as well as other representatives of individual member states, are being deployed strategically.

“Sweden has a very good relationship with a lot of least developed countries, because Sweden is a big aid donor,” said Helena Hellström Gefwert, spokesperson for the Swedish delegation.

“We can more easily than some other EU member states have bilateral meetings with those type of countries,” she added.

In the past week, Swedish minister Asa Romson herself has been less available to promote the Swedish and EU positions as she was given a role as mediator.

She, together with five other European ministers, was named a “facilitator” (or sometimes “co-facilitator”), a role the French presidency of the summit has bestowed onto 19 officials in order to find consensus on a particular topic.

In Romson's case, she was tasked with bridging gaps between parties on the issues “adaption” and “loss & damage”, which refer to ways to adapt to climate change that has already happened, and potential financial recovery money for it, respectively.

But Hellström Gefwert said that the appointment as faciliator only helped Sweden's profile.

“Sweden's voice is stronger because of the Swedish minister's work as co-facilitator, because the world sees Sweden has an important role. It makes it easier for the Swedish delegation to arrange meetings,” the spokesperson said.

The facilitators were appointed in pairs, with one from a developing country, and one from a developed country. In the latter category, the dominance of European ministers (from Germany, Norway, UK, Sweden, Switzerland, and Poland) somewhat stands out.

Partly this is because most of the developed countries are in Europe, said Michael Jacobs, a former climate adviser to the UK government. But he added: “European ministers are quite good at this kind of thing. They have to do so much internal negotiating, they know how to negotiate.”

The French presidency

And then there is Laurent Fabius.

France's foreign minister has been chairing the 21st Conference of the Parties, as the summit is officially called, and he has been praised throughout the week.

“The key players right now are France, full stop. Chairing the COP21 discussions is perhaps the most powerful position a European member state is in. Their influence is great,” MEP Ian Duncan, of the Conservative Party in the UK, told this website on Friday morning.

“I think the reason we're on schedule, that much progress has been made, that the outcome is looking much more constructive is primarily due to the drive of the French,” he noted.

Of course, as the negotiations continue into the night of Friday to Saturday, the process may still slip from the French' hands. But so far, France's diplomatic tradition seems to pay off.

“We need to give credit to the French presidency for their impeccable way of steering this process,” Elina Bardram, head of the EU delegation, told journalists on Thursday.

“On Wednesday … it was very, very clear that there was no single party that was protesting the way the French COP presidency has steered this process. It has been inclusive. It has been responsive. It has been transparent,” she noted.

At the same time, the anonymous EU source noted, “we should not be too close to the French presidency” to avoid the summit to be seen as a European affair.

Meanwhile, EUobserver asked the United States' State Department who its climate envoy Todd Stern would call if he wants to speak to Europe.

“Commissioner Miguel Canete,” a senior state department official answered in an e-mail, adding “Special Envoy Stern has strong relationships with other excellent EU counterparts like Amber Rudd (UK), Barbara Hendriks (Germany) etc.”

EU and 195 countries adopt Paris climate accord

Deal cements new bottom-up approach which involves pledges by every UN state to reduce greenhouse emissions, as well as a review mechanism to jack up ambition every five years.

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