Europe’s green backlash

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The rise of populist and far-right parties in Sunday’s European parliament elections was partly mirrored by falls for green parties — even if the centre largely held. Five years after the euphoria the Greens experienced in 2019, when they increased their seats from 52 to 74, they slipped back to 53. The setback is unlikely to lead to a widescale rollback of EU climate policies. But it will surely mean less green ambition in the coming five years — with implications well beyond Europe.

The Greens’ performance in 2019 may prove a high-water mark. In the more benign, pre-pandemic and prewar economic environment, mass rallies inspired by green groups and activists such as Greta Thunberg helped to make climate concerns a central electoral issue. In response, mainstream parties were adopting net zero pledges and Ursula von der Leyen, the then incoming European Commission president, made the Green Deal — which aims to make the EU climate-neutral by 2050 — her flagship project.

Unfortunately, voters began to feel the impact of green policies on their wallets and lifestyles just as post-pandemic inflation and the energy shock from the Ukraine war kicked in. Some governments exacerbated the problem through mis-steps; the botched introduction by Germany’s three-way coalition — including the Greens — of a bill to replace new gas and oil heating systems with heat pumps created a backlash exploited by the far-right AfD.

Hard-right parties elsewhere made political capital out of promises to slow the transition, and centre-right parties adopted watered-down versions of the same rhetoric. EU-wide farmers’ protests over environmental regulations seen as heavy-handed provided a very different backdrop to the 2024 vote.

The overall picture is mixed. It is far more complex than green votes flowing directly to far-right parties — though green parties performed worst in France and Germany, where the far right did best. Greens fared better in Sweden, where the far right did not surge, and advanced in Denmark — while the Labour/Green alliance in the Netherlands narrowly overtook Geert Wilders’ far-right party. Where hard-right parties did well, polling suggests concern about migration — or its effects on, say, housing costs — was a bigger factor than the “greenlash”.

Yet an enlarged hard-right presence in the parliament, and the greater caution of von der Leyen’s centre-right EPP group, provide a much less propitious outlook for green policies in the next five years — which are vital to determining whether the EU achieves its 2030 climate change targets. Green laws already adopted will be hard to undo. But some, including the 2035 phaseout of the sale of new petrol or diesel cars, are due to be reviewed, and could be weakened. A less climate-friendly parliament could make life harder for Brussels’ proposal to agree a legal target of cutting net emissions by 90 per cent, from 1990 levels, by 2040. Von der Leyen seems likely to adopt a different focus, such as defence, if she secures a second term.

Policymakers committed to the green transition need to learn lessons. They must be finely attuned to the impact on consumers, and ensure policies are well designed and communicated, with help for those most heavily affected. More targeted tax incentives to reduce the upfront costs of, say, installing solar panels or switching to electric vehicles could accelerate adoption by businesses and households alike.

A more compelling narrative is needed, too, on the jobs, businesses and technologies the green transition will create. The European election of 2024 might yet prove to be the peak of the far right. But amid efforts to neutralise rightwing extremism, the focus on combating the epochal threat of climate change must not be lost.

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