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13th Aug 2022

Interview

EU's Green Deal mastermind: 'We have to succeed'

  • Since coming to Brussels in 2019 to spearhead the EU's climate response, Diederik Samsom keeps a low profile. (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Since coming to Brussels in 2019 to spearhead the EU's climate response, former leader of the Dutch labour party Diederik Samsom has been operating outside of the public eye.

Although far from being camera shy — he was once dubbed the 'Quizking' by Dutch press after winning his fifth televised game show — as head of cabinet for vice president Frans Timmermans he keeps a low profile.

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  • "For years we didn't have to worry about financing. We sort of parked it," Samsom said. (Photo: Wikimedia)

But Samsom masterminded the Green Deal, and it is he who is chiefly responsible for pushing, steering, and cajoling 27 member states into line with European climate targets. And being a former street coach he knows how to deal with an unruly group of people.

"We have a big bag of money," he told EUobserver at the Friends of Europe summit on Tuesday (14 June).

"The carrot and the stick," Samsom said. "The incentive has to be very simple."

According to Samsom, the pandemic has put the EU Green Deal "on steroids."

For the first time ever the EU jointly borrowed €750bn, which will be disbursed until 2026 to help countries deal with the Covid-19 fallout.

Some 40 percent of this cash is earmarked for climate investments, which will only be paid if countries spend the money according to the EU climate rules.

This gives Samsom a degree of leverage over member states the EU has never had before.

Supercharged

The logic of external shocks "supercharging" the Green Deal also applies to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Samson said.

With RePowerEU, the EU will again use its financial firepower to suck up the shock of higher energy and food prices and speed up the Green Deal in the process.

Some €210bn of new investments in renewables will help countries reduce their fossil fuel use and cut Russian gas imports by two-thirds before the end of the year.

In the past, it has been difficult to reach agreements among the 27 members of the European Council, composed of heads of state or government.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted the "less climate-minded members to change their tune," Samson said, referring to the Czech Republic and Poland, two countries especially worried about Vladimir Putin's influence over the EU

Climate change has become a national security matter

"This will be noticeable in the Council meetings in the coming months," Samsom said, referring to the 13 climate laws that will go up for approval this year.

No more cheap cash

Even if the European Green Deal has been fast-tracked under pressure of crisis and war, this may not be the case in the future.

What actually "supercharged" the Green Deal was access to lots of cheap cash. Governments and the EU could agree on large-scale fiscal stimulus at least in part because of interest-free borrowing.

"For years we didn't have to worry about financing," Samsom said. "We sort of parked it."

But inflation reached 8.1 percent in Europe in May, and in response, the European Central Bank has announced an end to its ultra-loose monetary policy.

This has caused average interest rates on government borrowing in the EU to spike to an eight-year high in recent weeks. Borrowing costs in Italy and Greece have tripled and are rapidly increasing.

According to Samsom "interest rates were higher not that many years ago."

But the interest rate rise of 10-year German bonds over the last six months has been the largest this century, and many economists are warning a recession is coming.

The average 10-year bond yield is up to levels not seen since 2014 (Photo: ECB)

Higher borrowing costs for companies, households and governments will lower demand for products and services in the EU, causing higher unemployment.

It will also increase the cost of Green Deal investments, potentially causing some member states to delay or scale down their green strategies.

"It's hard to predict how things are going to develop, but we still believe financing will not be our biggest bottleneck," Samsom said, adding that the EU is currently not planning to deploy new financial firepower to help member states with their climate programmes.

Exponential growth

Yet despite these challenges, Samsom is fully convinced the Green Deal will succeed.

When asked if he believes the EU's target to reduce fossil fuel emissions by 55 percent in the next eight years is achievable, he points to the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We underestimated the growth of the virus because our brains can't deal with exponential growth," he said.

And like Covid-19, the adoption of renewables is growing exponentially," he said, a statement supported by calculations made by the UK-based NGO Global Change Data.

Their data shows that with current growth rates, solar and wind would reach 45 percent of global electricity generation by 2030 and 100 percent by 2033 (excluding transport and heating).

"25,000 homes need solar panels every day in Europe to reach our climate target," Samsom said. "That may seem impossible now. But we install more new kitchens in Europe every day. So why not add some solar panels while we're at it?".

The same will be possible for insulating homes, and building new wind farms, he believes.

"It's going to be hard," Samson said. "But we have no choice: we have to succeed."

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