The EU Green Deal can go global – but ‘climate diplomacy’ won’t be easy

European Union

In the 1990s, Europe’s drive to create a single market earned international kudos. It also triggered a wave of anxiety as policymakers across the world fretted about the plan’s external ramifications.

Most fears of Fortress Europe were misplaced. But the global concern was telling. EU officials who prepared the plan had paid scant attention to its impact on the outside world.

It all worked out in the end. Europe did not raise the trade drawbridge; imports, exports and investments grew in leaps and bounds and everyone benefitted from the creation of the EU’s large border-free market.

As Europe embarks on the Green Deal – its newest transformational project – lessons learned from the creation of the EU single market, and, going even further back, from the Common Agriculture Policy, must help steer EU policies and actions.

Once again, the world is watching with interest and trepidation. Once again, there are fears of the Green Deal’s global fall-out. And once again, EU leaders are so focused on the complex internal machinations of the project that they may end up paying inadequate heed to others’ concerns.

That would be a mistake. If Europe plays its cards right, the EU blueprint for pursuing climate neutrality by 2050 could become a truly inspirational manual for other countries and regions.

This will, however, require crafting a Green Deal narrative which, while focussing on Europe’s future complex trajectory, is also sensitive to the world’s concerns.

EU policymakers will have to become better at communicating, explaining and informing Europe’s partners about the Green Deal. Consistency in policymaking and messaging will be essential.

Reassuringly, the European Commission’s Green Deal document devotes two and a half pages to Europe’s vision to become a global ‘climate leader’.

There is a promise that the EU will continue to promote and implement ambitious environment, climate and energy policies across the world, working in both multilateral fora and on a bilateral level to achieve its goals.

This is good news. Global climate champions are few and far between. Since the EU only accounts for 9% of global emissions, however, achieving real impact worldwide will require strong collective action.

Europe’s ‘climate diplomats’ will have to combine self-confidence and humility, assertiveness and diffidence, principles and pragmatism. Here’s some advice:

First, make sure that the Green Deal does not become another excuse for protectionism. The EU will lose all legitimacy – and the Green Deal will have no credibility – if Europeans succumb to the short-term temptation of using the climate crisis to protect and shelter some sectors of European agriculture and industry.

Second, keep an eye on geopolitics. Relations with Southeast Asian countries are already soured over the European Parliament’s 2018 decision to effectively ban palm oil in biofuels by excluding it from renewable energy targets, a move which many Asians believe reflects the power of Europe’s rival oilseed growers rather than any scientific environmental impact assessment.

Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s top palm oil producers, have also accused the EU of unfairly targeting palm oil in an effort to impose new limits of levels of contaminants considered harmful to health in vegetable oils and fats. The dispute has put a spanner in the EU’s trade talks with both countries. Plans to upgrade EU relations with the wider Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are also temporarily on hold.

Third, EU climate diplomats must strive to be as transparent as possible about plans to introduce an EU border adjustment tax or carbon levy. Details on how the tax could be implemented in practice have so far been few and far between. That’s fine for the moment. But trade friction with partners and possibly ‘apoplectic’ interventions from US President Donald Trump can be avoided if the EU starts clarifying how the tax will be calculated, designed and made compliant with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

Fourth, the EU certainly has the economic weight to shape international standards in line with its environmental and climate ambitions. But European climate diplomats must resist the temptation of using a sledge-hammer to achieve their goals.

Making compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement a prerequisite for new EU trade deals will require careful diplomacy, for example. Countries are more likely to fall in line with EU demands if they are offered cooperation and collaboration rather than subjected to tough preconditions.

It won’t be easy. Many Green MEPs favour using trade agreements to project European environmental standards worldwide. Ironically, however, doing so too harshly could reduce Europe’s leverage, not increase it.

Fifth, use upcoming meetings with Africa, China and India – and members of the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) – to forge ambitious ‘climate partnerships’ which reinforce support for the Paris deal and a worldwide green transformation.

Finally, pending other international decisions on climate finance, it makes good sense to make use of the EU’s substantial aid budget, investment facilities, technical assistance and capacity building tools – and the private sector – to ensure a coordinated response to the climate crisis.

In a world of increased geopolitical tensions, Europe cannot afford to spark further misunderstandings. The EU has strong multilateral credentials, an expanding network of partners, and the regulatory and standard-setting power to take its Green Deal global. It should do so, wisely.


written by Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.

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