One policy to unite them all: how effective climate action could prove Europe’s greatest opportunity

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, speaking at the Forest event at the SEC, Glasgow. 02/11/2021. Photograph: Karwai Tang/ UK Government Creative Commons BY-NC-ND

By Luigi Ferrieri Caputi

Mala tempora currunt! If we take a look at what has happened in the last few years, it is easy to understand why so many citizens, especially the young, feel lost and anxious about the future. Sometimes it appears that even the élites are on the same track. The EU is facing an everincreasing amount of crises, which are growing in magnitude and complexity, leading some to argue for a “multi-crisis” era. If you add the climate crisis to the equation, then hope seems rather naïve. Albeit the climate crisis is undoubtedly the biggest challenge we face today it would be wrong, both scientifically and politically, to say that all is lost; though the window for action is closing rapidly. 

Trying to look towards a brighter future, I would argue that the climate crisis brings forth a new hope. Indeed, as someone once said, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” should drive our political understanding. Therefore, we should not be naïve in our optimism, nor should we overlook the harsh realities. However, it can be argued that while past challenges could be resolved at the State-level, climate action requires a European response. It is much more optimistic to think that the European States can, alone, mitigate the dire consequences of a warming planet rather than believing that these latter will bring them to a more collaborative approach. If (and it is a big if, indeed) we are to act, the necessary coherent responses to the climate crisis, which are European Union-based, could prove extremely beneficial for European Integration. 

Here are two reasons why, one with more of an internal perspective and one focusing more on the external action of the European Union.

Borders? Where we are going, we don’t need Borders! How climate migration will reshape migration policy

The migrant crisis was indeed one of the most troublesome times for the Union. Apart from a brief display of solidarity at the very beginning of the crisis, Member States turned against each other. Southern states argued that there was no “European Solidarity,” while others – like Germany – refuted by showing data on the per-capita rate of acceptance of migrants in comparison to their national population. It would seem, therefore, that a possible new migrant crisis could bring the Union to its knees. The migrant crisis that the European Union has already faced is nothing compared to what awaits it in the forthcoming future. The idea of turning our heads towards both countries of departure and first arrival will be impossible. Not because that is morally wrong or not – which it is – but simply because there will be biblical movements, the likes of which have never been seen before, even within wealthy countries

The sheer amount of climate refugees will require all European countries to collaborate if they wish to guarantee their security. Furthermore, while morality is subjective, and some may find it acceptable to let hundreds of thousands die at Europe’s borders, there will be concrete difference in the type of migrations that will render these ideas difficult to implement. Such differences will be double: first, the discussed large number of people who will have to flee towards wealthier regions, including the EU, or face death. The sheer magnitude of this movement will make simply blocking them materially impossible. Second, there will also be migrations within European countries and among them. When faced with a sinking Venice or a flooded Germany, will European states truly believe that the consequences of the climate crisis – among which, its migrants – can be contained by political boundaries?

Given these significant differences and the inadequacy of traditional national solutions, European countries could find a common solution to the migration problem through a more cooperative approach. It is important to note that political scientists are often unable to make accurate predictions – and this is not meant to be taken as such, but rather as a contribution to the ongoing debate on European Integration. 

Furthermore, even if Europeans were to demonstrate more solidarity amongst themselves in response to the climate crisis, it does not necessarily imply enthusiasm for open borders at the external frontiers of the Union, nor does it mean that all types of migration will be treated equally. The Ukrainian case clearly demonstrates that some Member Statess are more willing to host migrants who are “similar to us”, based on the assumption that migrants of similar cultures, religions and traditions would be easier to integrate.

It’s (NOT) a Trap! How the EU could escape Thucydides’ trap thanks to climate diplomacy

The European Union has the potentional to become a great climate champion, possessing both normative and economic power to drive decarbonisation. Ursula Von Den Leyen, President of the European Commission, has repeatedly emphasized her goal for the EU to become the first climate-neutral continent, reaffirming the Union’s leading role in climate negotiations. Frans Timmermans, Dutch Commissioner and Executive Vice President in charge of the Green Deal, has consistently advocated for a more ambitious EU policy on climate action. While it remains true that EU legislation on climate action is among the most advanced globally, the EU has indeed always struggled to establish a common foreign policy: looking at what happened with the Green Taxonomy, it is no surprise that the implementation of the climate targets can find its intergovernmental struggles. Claude Turmes, Minister of Energy from Luxembourg, concerning the great fracturing surrounding gas and nuclear said that rather than providing a common standard for sustainable finance, the taxonomy would lead to more fracturing as countries will go their way”, showing how fragile cooperation can be. Other powerful counterarguments exist, for example, the fact that powers like China are not willing to come to the negotiating table and decarbonise their economies fast enough, based on historical responsibility for today’s climate crisis and arguing for a right to emit and that, therefore, the EU role will be much smaller than what would be ideal.

While finding a common diplomatic solution may appear challenging, a more coordinated approach to climate diplomacy and foreign policy from the EU has the potential to overcome these difficulties. At the same time,  the case of the Ozone layer provides a contrasting narrative, demonstrating that powers can find common ground and respect agreements. However, realists like Stephen Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy, and the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Relations at Harvard University, have argued that we may be falling into Thucydides’ trap once again, making climate cooperation unlikely.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that climate change and the ozone crisis are vastly different events. The former is a more systemic and therefore potentially more dangerous issue. Certain countries, such as Saudi Arabia and major producers, continue to resist climate action. In 2019, Mohammed Barkindo, OPEC’s Secretary General, even referred to climate activists and climate awareness as “perhaps the greatest threat to our industry going forward”. His statement led to Greta Thunberg later thanking him for the unintended “compliment” received. Europe’s tremendous opportunity lies precisely in the complexity of this situation.

Whether or not one believes that a higher degree of strategic autonomy is the way forward for Europe, if the Union wants to stand its ground at the negotiating table – and MSs have every interest in doing so – it is more efficient to pursue it as the European Union rather than the sum of its components. The Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism serves as strong evidence for this perspective. This protectionist measure, which would tax incoming goods based on their carbon footprint, demonstrates that European collaboration can make the Union a formidable player in trade wars and that climate policy can have a spillover effect. It effectively addresses challenges such as the Inflation Reduction Act, which posed threats to our commercial and economic interests and was consequently poorly received by the EU. The influence of climate diplomacy and the need for decarbonization can extend to Common Foreign and Security Policy. Whether this will come to fruition or not, as mentioned before, is beyond the scope of this post. 

It would be reductionist and somewhat naïve to think that the current climate crisis will not impact the quality of European integration. Indeed, the European Union has faced and will continue to face numerous crises in its life, whether exogenous, sudden, and unpredictable like the Covid pandemic, or endogenous like the Rule of Law crisis. The climate crisis is, by far, the significant one yet. The best solutions for European security in the face of the climate challenge are supranational. Therefore, if member states decide to tackle this challenge and address it concretely, this could lead – as a spillover effect – to greater, rather than less, European integration, especially considering the new types of challenges that lie ahead. Of course, these arguments do not guarantee that the climate crisis will inevitably lead to further European integration, but rather present a a wonderful opportunity for it to occur.