Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Opinion

Could 'Future Europe' conference actually help fix climate change?

  • For the first time, citizens will play a central role in the debate (Photo: Tim Dennell)

The Conference on the Future of Europe is now in full swing - and it may seem like another frivolous political EU process to some – another shop talk about the EU's future that talks a lot but changes little. But in reality it could be different.

If all goes well, the conference could become a milestone in the history of the EU, leading towards a more participatory, more capable and more forward-looking Union.

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For the first time, citizens will play a central role in the debate. Citizens' panels and a dialogue platform will make recommendations on the future course of the EU. Parliament, the Commission and the Council have committed to following up on these recommendations – according to the requirements of the EU treaties.

The conference - CFE for short - is important for climate policy. In Europe, climate policy is largely shaped by the EU, and climate is already high on the CFE agenda.

So how can the CFE be a success? And how can it help improve EU climate policy? In the following four ways.

First, the CFE must make specific recommendations. General statements about the future of the EU carry no weight and will be of little benefit to the EU.

Second, to exert influence, the CFE needs wide political support from a broad spectrum of political opinions.

Third, the CFE must set priorities. If everything is a priority, nothing is. The CFE should therefore concentrate on topics that are particularly important for the EU's capacity to act, or that are politically deadlocked and need new momentum.

And fourth, the CFE must have a credible follow-up process. The follow-up process in the parliament and the council must take the recommendations of the CFE seriously, but must also make clear that the CFE was not elected. Without democratic legitimacy, the CFE cannot take decisions.

With this formula, the CFE can help improve many issues.

Regarding climate policies, the following three areas should play a central role. They are important for the long-term success of EU climate policy; at the same time, they are not addressed in other political processes.

'Undead' climate policy

The end of climate-damaging subsidies is one of the undead of European climate policy. Raised over and over again, real progress seems almost unattainable. There is no legal deadline to put an end to subsidising fossil fuels.

A new attempt in this direction failed merely only this month – had it been for the Parliament, the new European Climate Law would have contained a non-binding appeal to member states to allow climate-harmful subsidies to expire by 2025.

But even this weak proposal failed. The CFE could bring new momentum to this deadlocked debate.

The EU's legislative process is another area where the CFE should facilitate improvements. In climate and energy policy, most rules are enacted in the ordinary legislative process.

In other words, the parliament is an equal legislator and the council decides with a qualified majority. No country has a veto. There are, however, important exceptions to this rule.

EU regulations that affect member states' energy mixes, energy taxation or spatial planning are only passed in the special legislative process. In this process, the council decides by consensus and the parliament only has a consultative status.

As a result, the adoption of ambitious measures is more difficult or even impossible.

To achieve improvements, the CFE should recommend expanding the ordinary legislative process to all aspects of energy and climate policies. This would improve EU climate and energy policies, since, without a veto, the slowest member sate cannot determine the pace of policy-making in the EU. The expansion of the ordinary legislative process would also enhance transparency and democratic legitimacy.

Last but not least, the CFE should propose improvements to the EU institutions. Since its establishment, the European Parliament has been a strong advocate for ambitious EU climate and energy policies – irrespective of varying majorities. The CFE should recommend ways to strengthen the Parliament, including the full right to initiate laws and a full right of inquiry.

In addition, the CFE should help to clearly define the role of the European Council in the legislative process. The European Council is not a legislator - it only sets the overall policy guidelines of the EU.

The Council of Ministers and the parliament are the legislators of the EU. Regardless of this legal framework, the European Council has occasionally acted as the de facto legislator of the EU – a problem for climate policy.

This body decides unanimously, making decisions on the lowest common denominator more likely.

Naturally, the CFE can make important recommendations for climate policy in many other areas – ranging from phasing out the use of combustion engines in cars to the quicker termination of coal combustion.

But to set priorities, the CFE should not rehash old demands under the new heading "CFE" or duplicate ongoing processes. It should concentrate on strengthening the EU's ability to act: how can the EU better help member states and their citizens in addressing the big challenges of the future?

The CFE must not be disheartened by old arguments that institutional questions do not interest people and should therefore be left out.

Institutions make policies and their governance makes a difference – in the daily lives of every one of us.

Author bio

Dr Nils Meyer-Ohlendorf is head of international and European governance at the Ecologic Institute.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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