Return of the same: the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity for or threat to the EU’s energy and climate policy?

European Commissioners for European Green Deal Frans Timmermans during a press conference with European Commissioner for Energy Kadri Simson in Brussels, Belgium on Sept. 17, 2020. © Alexandros Michailidis

by Claire Gauthier
November 12, 2020

In a previous blog post, Reimund Schwarze argued that no one should rejoice about the drop in carbon emissions in relation to achieving this year’s climate targets. The COVID-19 crisis instead actually underlines the structural and long-term efforts required to fight climate change. He thus advocates for staying the course with the EU’s current energy and climate policy (ECP), particularly the EU’s Green Deal.

This needs to be said because first, it is uncertain whether this policy remains a political priority in times of crisis, and second, whether a crisis can lead to significant change within this policy. Crises are moments in which actors can lock in or break with existing paths. Therefore, proponents of ambitious climate policies simultaneously and heterogeneously perceive crises as an opportunity and a threat to such policies.

Although the causes of the COVID-19 crisis differ significantly from those of the 2008 financial crisis, they have similarly resulted in an economic crisis of global and historic proportions. Debates that took place a decade ago are now reappearing, such as those on what the impact of an economic crisis would be on energy and climate policy and those on economic integration completed by mutualising European debt through bonds. In this blog post, I want to discuss the extent to which the previous crisis impacted the development of the EU-ECP and whether this precedent can inform our understanding of current negotiations on the Green Deal in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. I will focus on the declarations of the Czech Prime Minister during the spring of 2020, as they are particularly revealing the current power dynamics in the EU-ECP.

Brussels, Belgium. 15th April 2020. Press conference by EU Commission President Ursula VON DER LEYEN and EU Council President Charles MICHEL on the EU response to the coronavirus crisis. © Alexandros Michailidis

Framing energy and climate policy: competitiveness or green growth

Last March, the Czech PM, Andrej Babiš, called for the abandonment of the Green Deal due to the COVID-19 crisis, which was requiring the immediate and full attention of European leaders. Calls for deprioritising or downscaling climate ambitions are neither unique to Czechia nor unprecedented.

Although they differ in their motivations and voting behaviour in European institutions, Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries are perceived as environmental laggards. This holds particularly true for the Czech Republic and Poland due to their reliance on their domestic coal industries. To moderate climate ambitions, during both times of crisis and times in between crises, these countries and other actors, such as energy-intensive industries, argue that the economic and social costs of the energy transition are heterogeneously distributed and thus impact their competitiveness. The argument is then generalised to the EU’s competitiveness in relation to its major trading partners.

In the context of the 2008-2009 crisis, the actors traditionally opposing greater ECP ambitions called for short-term objectives framed in terms of crisis management, economic recovery and competitiveness to be given priority over long-term objectives, i.e., the fight against climate change.

However, an alternative to the competitiveness framing exists. The green growth framing is supported by member states and actors such as environmental NGOs and the renewable industry sector pushing for greater ECP ambitions. This framing is based on a conjunction, rather than opposition, of economic and climate policies as well as of short- and long-term goals. In times of crisis, such framing creates an opportunity to strengthen the EU-ECP by focusing recovery on green investments such as renewables and building renovation.

In sum, a crisis does not fundamentally change the traditional lines of argumentation or the division between climate front-runners and laggards. Overall, the political uses of a crisis are ambivalent: it is not clear whether an economic crisis naturally favours one interpretation or political camp over another, and thus, it is also unclear whether such a crisis is a threat to or an opportunity for an ambitious ECP.


Which framing prevailed from 2008 onwards and what impacts did it have on the EU-ECP’s development?

It is well known that the competitiveness framing was prominent during the financial and Eurozone crises. The cost of the energy transition became a widespread concern even in countries that were environmental front-runners, such as Germany. Consequently, and as expected, the position of reluctant actors was strengthened and posed a threat to policy initiatives negotiated at the time and, more generally, to the further development of such policies. Without going into detail, this can be analysed by observing the priorities of European leaders between 2008 and 2014, the negotiation of policy targets as key indicators of ambition or a lack thereof, and the nature of investments put forward in the recovery plan.

However, I argue for a more nuanced interpretation on two grounds. First, the competitiveness framing prevailed to only a limited extent, since the recovery programme was amended to integrate green investments as soon as 2010. Second, the course and core of the EU-ECP did not fundamentally change, as every target adopted since 2008 was at least maintained or increased between the proposal and adoption stages. Thus, the financial and Eurozone crises introduced temporary setbacks, but the worst-case scenario for climate proponents, i.e., a significant negative change, was avoided.

More interestingly, the previous economic crisis introduced or amplified specific dynamics within the EU-ECP that the Green Deal embodies. In 2008, policy targets in negotiation for 2020 were maintained by granting numerous concessions to reluctant actors, such as CEE and Southern European countries and energy-intensive industries. Since 2015, ambitions have been continuously ramped up while accommodating interest heterogeneity and institutional blockages by combining both framings. More recently, the European Commission managed to obtain the support of reluctant countries, such as the Czech Republic, for increased policy targets for 2030 and 2050 by financially supporting the energy transformation of coal regions.

European flags in the wind in front of The „Next Generation EU“ banner on the front of the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission. © Xavier Lejeune


Return of the same? State of play and outlook

The COVID-19 crisis presents a strategic opportunity to reopen the debate for reluctant countries to abandon current priorities and objectives, just as in 2008-2009, or to obtain additional concessions, as has occurred with every EU-ECP initiative since the 2008 crisis. Mr. Babiš’s statement in March 2020 threatens to delay climate action. His turnaround two months later is all the more surprising. Indeed, at the end of May, he actively supported the Green Deal again. How can we explain this?

Of course, the health situation in May was not as pressing as in March. However, more importantly, and in contrast its actions in 2008-2009, the Commission strongly hinted at a green recovery plan to be presented at the end of the month. Of immediate relevance to the Czech Republic, the proposal ratchets financial support for the transition of coal-dependent regions and other EU funds on the condition that they are compatible with current EU priorities, such as the fight against climate change. Notwithstanding other explanations, Mr. Babiš has a direct interest in backing up a European green recovery programme to unlock funds for supporting his country’s economy. However, the recovery plan is still in negotiation, and the amount of the transition funds remain uncertain.

Regardless, the recovery plan results from a superposition of mutually reinforcing institutional layers created during the last decade and includes as a response to the previous crisis increased economic integration in line with EU priorities, the institutional strengthening of climate actors within the Commission, the aforementioned integration of green investments and the support of fossil fuel exit strategies in European funds. Thus, even in times of crisis, the EU-ECP relies heavily on pre-existing structures and decisions.

This is why I argue that the current political response to the economic crisis and its impact on the EU-ECP differ from that during the 2008 crisis. Current arrangements, some of them originating in response to the earlier economic and financial crisis, enable the European Commission to maintain its current priorities and initiatives. The Commission can push through a green growth framing as long as it accommodates the cost concern of reluctant countries.

Furthermore, the overall European context has also changed during the last decade. Public awareness of climate change has risen and opinions on climate change have also changed, including in Central and Eastern Europe. Recent electoral results and polls suggest the strengthening of green parties in major European countries and at the EU level. Finally, the cost of renewable energy has significantly dropped in the last decade, weakening the central argument put forward by reluctant actors.


Conclusion

Will energy and climate policy remain a political priority during the COVID-19 crisis? As a general argument, I claim that there is no clear answer about whether this policy will be maintained in times of crisis or not: it could go either way. Nevertheless, the political responses in the previous and current crises seem to differ, suggesting that the fight against climate change is higher on the agenda now than it was a decade ago.

Concerning the question of whether a crisis can lead to significant change within this policy, my opinion is stronger and in line with that of other scholars: crises do not currently significantly challenge existing patterns and power dynamics in the EU-ECP.

This means that this policy is overall more resilient to economic crises and their political uses than some climate activists might think. The caveat is that crises may not bring about the rapid advancement that they hope for in the fight against climate change, or at least, this political rupture will not come from EU political institutions.

Currently, the combination of consensual decision-making and interest heterogeneity prevents radical and widespread change at the EU level. Bolder climate action would require a reform of decision-making procedures. Neither of the two crises of the 2000s triggered such reform.

Moreover, both framings have more in common than it may appear at first sight. The fight against climate change is primarily understood through economic factors (growth, green investments) by the EU. However, the COVID-19 crisis and climate change call the patterns of thinking and behaviours of organisations and individuals into question more than the 2008 financial crisis did, in both economic and non-economic dimensions. Numerous social and environmental movements already point out the limits of our current system, advocating for alternative lifestyles to achieve individual and collective well-being.

Successfully tackling societal challenges, from the COVID-19 crisis to the fight against climate change, requires crafting adequate policies. However, it also depends on how a multitude of actors, such as national and local public authorities, companies, NGOs, individuals and communities, comply with, challenge and tackle issues outside of this given framework. This is why I generally agree with Reimund Schwarze on staying the course and why I do not want to dismiss the importance of EU policies in the fight against climate change. However, I find it equally important to point out the implications and limits of such a statement.


The author is a PhD student in political science, a research assistant through the Kelso Professorship and a member of the Institute for European Studies and the French-German centre for social sciences, the Centre Marc Bloch. She studies EU and energy transition politics and their impact on the role and behaviour of consumers and citizens.



References

Ćetković, S., Buzogány, A., 2019. The Political Economy of EU Climate and Energy Policies in Central and Eastern Europe Revisited: Shifting Coalitions and Prospects for Clean Energy Transitions. Polit. Gov. 7, 124–138. https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v7i1.1786

Slominski, P. (2016). Energy and climate policy: does the competitiveness narrative prevail in times of crisis?. Journal of European Integration, 38(3), 343-357. https://doi.org/10.1080/07036337.2016.1140759

Reading suggestions (including Viadrina researchers)

For more literature on breaking and locking paths and patterns, consider the notions of path dependency and critical junctures in institutionalist and organisation theories (political science, sociology, management), for example:

  • Sydow, J., Schreyögg, G., & Koch, J. (2009). Organizational path dependence: Opening the black box. Academy of management review34(4), 689-709.
  • Sydow, J., Schreyögg, G., & Koch, J. (2020). On the theory of organizational path dependence: Clarifications, replies to objections, and extensions. Academy of Management Review, (ja).
  • Mahoney, J. (2000). Path dependence in historical sociology. Theory and society29(4), 507-548.
  • Pierson, P. (2000). Increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics. American political science review, 251-267.
  • Fioretos, O., Falleti, T. G., & Sheingate, A. (Eds.). (2016). The Oxford handbook of historical institutionalism. Oxford University Press.

For more literature on discourses and narratives during the financial and Eurozone crisis, see the work of Amelie Kutter (IFES), e. g.

  • Heinrich M., & Kutter, A. (2013). A Critical Juncture in EU Integration?. Moments of truth: The politics of financial crises in comparative perspective, 120.
  • Kutter, A. (2014). A catalytic moment: The Greek crisis in the German financial press. Discourse & Society25(4), 446-466.
  • Kutter, A. (2020). Construction of the Eurozone crisis: re-and depoliticising European economic integration. Journal of European Integration42(5), 659-676.
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