How are Green MEPs fighting for a Just Transition in the European Parliament?

The following article is an excerpt from Ecosprinter’s 2021 printed edition on a just transition. We decided to bring you the articles from this edition in a digital form as well.

With the new Commission of Von Der Leyen and the ongoing Green Deal talks put forward by it, the Commission has never seemed as progressive. In parallel, young people are leading the protests offline and online, staying on top of the news, demanding to #WithdrawTheCAP,  #StopFossilFuel or #SayNoEUMercosur.

Have we achieved some change or is business as usual still winning behind the curtains?

We asked Green Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Austria, Italy, Poland, Germany and Sweden for their insights, to better understand whether the European Union is truly leading the way to achieve a just transition as it seems to claim. 

The tools to push for a Just transition are in the European Commission’s hands.

With the proposal for a European Green Deal in 2019, that promised Just Transition, the European Union became the center stage of the discussion on a greener future.

We  all agree, the EU and the member states have taken “the right direction”, says Thomas Waitz:

“Henceforth, the devil lies in the details”: How much money do we want to invest to make the EU carbon neutral? How can we make sure that this transition is socially just? In which sectors and regions should the money be spent? How can the EU contribute to system change globally?

Currently a lot of money is directed into the Covid-19 recovery, which could be used for financing a shift towards a just transition. The questions stated above are crucial especially for the recovery plans for the time beyond the Covid-19 pandemic as these investments will shape the EU for many years to come. Even though the member states agreed on supporting environmental policies with their national climate plans, some of these plans lag far behind the expectations. For example, in Germany, 4 out of 5 Euros will be spent on already predetermined projects decided before it was clear that the EU would take on debts for the Covid-19 recovery1. This comes down to having the EU finance projects already decided on the national level rather than financing new projects to support the country in achieving more ambitious climate goals, criticizes Michael Bloss: “That is not really helpful”. This is the case for many EU countries, including Greece2. At the same time, some criticized initiatives have been withdrawn from the national recovery plans. This was for example the case in Italy, where plans to include the financing of a carbon storage facility at the coast of Ravenna have been withdrawn from Italy’s recovery plan after protests. Carbon storage facilities aim at capturing carbon emitted into the air and store it in large underground reservoirs. Eleanora Evi criticizes this technology because it would provide false solutions, as emissions should be reduced at their sources. Thus, she welcomes the decision to exclude it from Italy’s recovery plan. 

However, some argue that a uniform EU response is not always the best answer. In this spirit, Swedish MEP Jakop Dalunde, who generally supports EU-wide climate actions such as the EU’s emission trading system, proposed that some policies can be more just, if decided on the national level. For instance, he believes a high European-wide carbon tax could be socially just, if coupled with a fund for investments in local social and green projects. Often, he says, sustainability is easier implemented on the national level: For example, if using a car becomes more expensive, alternatives should be provided for all income classes, such as decreasing income tax for lower incomes or by developing the public transportation system or bike lanes. Yet, “it’s not the European Union that can build a new metro station”. Thus, ambitious climate action coupled with a national social justice dimension could lead to even more equality among Member States, if it is at least co-funded by the EU.

Sylwia Spurek highlights that the European Commission does not yet use all the tools it has at its disposal, which would be key for making sure that just transition funds go into sustainable projects instead of outdated ones. One option would be to strengthen mainstreaming of environmental and climate policies into other policies of the EU by increasing the conditionality of EU funds, which has been discussed for several years now3. “It is high time to use these tools and become a game-changer”. Eleonora Evi adds: “I don’t have the magic recipe, but I really feel that if we put solidarity on the table, economic resources and tools that can help those countries and regions that are lagging behind, this could help to put everybody on the same line.”

Leave no one behind

Just transition is a broad term that encompasses the shift that we need our society to make, “from the old economic schools of thought which are blind to environmental and climate realities, to future-proof models allowing us to thrive within planetary boundaries”, said Thomas Waitz, an Austrian MEP and a co-chair of the European Green Party. However, the transition toward sustainability can be taken without an understanding of its immense consequences on people: Not only is fairness the right way to do it, “it’s only politically possible when the social dimension is included”, cautioned Jakob Dalunde. “It is not necessarily the same person losing their job in a Polish coal mine that gets the new job in a Danish windmill farm”. For the transition to be just, it needs to put the workers in the center and make sure “it’s not the poor people who have to bear the costs”, Michael Bloss adds: “Most of the time it is really good to first  listen to them telling their sorrows and maybe afterwards we will be able to address some of their perceived threats. “

Then Italian MEP Eleonora Evi raises the importance of equal representation of EU citizens in the decision-making process. The debate around the ways to achieve a just transition needs to be as inclusive as possible and pay particular attention to minorities who already face discrimination. This is often true for women who are disproportionately affected by climate change around the world, and in particular in the poorest parts of the world. Too often, women are left out of the elaboration of climate-policies: “There is no democracy, no substantial solid decisions without equality. Including more women in the decision-making process is crucial for making this process a democratic one”, insists Sylwia Spurek. Protecting the most vulnerable ones from the impact of climate change, is not only about making sure European women are protected, but also that trade agreements and negotiations with other countries introduce relevant procedures in regard to women from  the countries of the Global South. What’s more, Eleonora Evi points out that where women are involved in decision-making, there are “remarkable approaches in terms of cooperation and resilience”.

A transition towards a carbon neutral society will inevitably have effects on the way Europeans work. Thus, a just representation of European citizens in the debate is indeed key to achieve fair decisions. This is illustrated with the example of coal mines that will need to close. In this regard, Michael Bloss estimates that “those who own the mines won’t suffer as much as those who work in the mines”, and thus calls to support the workers. Eleonora Evi proposes to support workers in general, for example by widening access to permanent employment contracts, to guarantee security for employees in the long run. Even though a European directive of 1999 already aims at fighting abuse of fixed-term contracts, this form of employment is steadily on the rise in Europe. For her, combating fixed-term contracts is a central precondition to a just transition: “We are seeing abuse of these fixed-term contracts that lead to precariousness for too many workers. And this has to change.”

Raising awareness, key to achieve a Just Transition

Besides financially supporting green projects and social security, the EU needs to play a bigger role in  strengthening the independence of media and the rule of law across Europe. Particularly in Poland, Sylwia Spurek calls for real actions against the political censorship of the media which do not respond to their “public mission right now”. It is fundamental, not only to ensure democracy, but to protect the role of the media to “raise awareness, inform in about the reality, about the changes, about developments”. First, not only in order to change our individual habits, but also to vote for politicians truly working  for Just Transition. Second, it is key to demystify green policies and debunk many stereotypes related to the impact of a green transition on citizens. “It’s a question of communicating and raising awareness that the shift to renewables does not mean that your electricity bill is going to rise. It’s actually quite the opposite: the price for constructing renewable energy sources is decreasing continuously, making them more competitive than ever. If citizens realise that renewables are not going to make living more expensive but rather provide them with clear air, less pollution and less noise, I think we can win their support quite easily.”, explains Thomas Waitz. Worldwide the cost of renewables continues to fall, most drastically for solar energy, making it an increasingly attractive investment4

Every discussion about a green transition is a discussion about energy transition

When discussing environmental issues – from schools to the European Parliament – chances are high that you will talk about solar and wind power, or in other words: the energy transition.

In Poland, where energy is mainly produced from coal and lignite, climate deniers are still influential: “Polish energy has been subsidized with public money for years now”, Sylwia Spurek notes., According to the newest Polish climate plan, the country will still be using coal in 2030. In this context, the EU could increase its pressure and give Poland the needed support to achieve climate targets, suggests Sylwia Spurek and  her colleagues. “Poland could be a big beneficiary of the Just Transition budget. I think money will talk at last, and we will decide to adopt climate neutrality targets”, Sylwia Spurek hopes. 

Furthermore, Michael Bloss denounces an argument commonly used by the fossil fuel industry of the impact of the energy transition on job losses: The renewable energy sector actually has a far higher job potential. The European Commission estimated before the outbreak of the pandemic that 1.2 million additional jobs could be created in the EU if the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Climate Agreement would be implemented5. In addition, former coal workers could still be employed in the renaturalization of the coal pits for at least 15 years after the sites have shut down.

Agriculture as a sector with high stakes

A further sector with significant challenges, but also with huge potential, is the agricultural sector. Many MEPs of the Greens/EFA group highlight the high influence of agrifood lobby groups on the EU’s agricultural policies, such as the negotiations around the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the EU’s farming subsidies. While there are many ways for the CAP to support a just transition, Thomas Waitz also highlighted that EU subsidies to farmers could be canceled if they are caught illegally employing workers on their fields. In this way, the social protection of agricultural workers could be strengthened. But for now, there has not been a fundamental reform of the CAP, which is criticized for supporting large-scale industrial farming. Thomas Waitz blamed excessive lobbying of the agrifood industry during the negotiations at the European Parliament for the lack of ambitious environmental protection while pointing out that the work of activist movements and NGOs on #WithdrawTheCAP is greatly appreciated. 

The Commission also seems to have watered down its originally progressive ambitions for the CAP, which shocked a lot of green MEPs. In a leaked version of a new farming strategy, which is part of the Green Deal, the Commission had proposed progressive measures to reduce the environmental impact of livestock farming. But most of these measures were then removed in the final version, which shows the influence of the meat lobby for Sylwia Spurek: “I can understand that they need to do everything to make the status quo still exist. But when we are talking about the climate catastrophe, it’s really not responsible to act against these progressive changes.” For a just transition in livestock farming, she suggests eliminatinglimiting the operations of large-scale industrial farms, which would be beneficial for the quality of life and fundamental rights of rural populations. Jakop Dalunde agreess: “Not a single euro should go to supporting meat factories.”

Law enforcement as a leverage for a Just Transition

Actions taken on the European level can help  reduce vast differences between states and  share the initial burden of climate action equally. These differences are demonstrated in Italy where the illegal exports of plastic waste to Eastern European countries is often unlawfully burnt or deposited6. To put an end to such practices, Eleonora Evi called for  considerable strengthening of implementation and enforcement of environmental laws.Similarly, Thomas Waitz highlights that there are currently many discrepancies in their application. Thus, implementation and enforcement has to be reinforced by the European Commission, the Member States, and by citizens who can denounce environmental law violations through petitions or complaints. “I believe that citizens can play a big role and thanks to them, some infringement procedures have been launched”, Thomas Waitz comments.

Which strategies for Greens?

It is crucial that such Green proposals have majorities in the European Parliament. This is not always the case, and sometimes Green legislative proposals are not even discussed in plenary sessions. Nevertheless, the situation has changed in the past years for the Greens in the European Parliament.

Firstly, their influence has grown considerably, as the last European election, the two largest groups in the Parliament, the conservative EPP group and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, no longer have a majority. Instead, the Greens/EFA group won seats. For Jakop Dalunde, this explains also the recent interest of the Commission in environmental policies: “They need our votes. If they didn’t need our votes, of course they wouldn’t be as green.”

As a result, a Just Transition towards a green Europe is now actively discussed on the European level and the Commission has stepped up its climate action efforts. At first sight, this could be interpreted as if all the groups in the Parliament now would fight for a Just Transition. However, Green MEPs contacted by the Ecosprinter criticized that a lot of the current proposals would only focus on specific sectors or regions, while in reality, green visions should encompass a holistic change, as Sylwia Spurek highlights: “We need to tackle not only the most obvious sectors like the transport sector but all the sectors which have a negative impact on the environment.

All aspects considered, there is a lot at stake with still a long way to go and nearly no time left to make this transition a just transition. Michael Bloss puts this challenge into a historical context: “We have always managed it thus we should trust us and our abilities to manage this change too as before. Transition as we have before.” 

Katja Raiher

Katja Raiher is a psychology student in the city of Lüneburg, Northern Germany. She is passionate about local politics, green economics and dancing.

Manon Maalouli

Manon Maalouli is currently a community manager for the Belgian French-speaking Green party. To log out, Manon likes to dance and play basketball without following the rules.

Robin Ehl

Robin is fighting for social and environmental justice with the French Young Greens and studies European studies. He is on the 2020-21 editorial board of the Ecosprinter and in his freetime, he loves to ride his racing bike.

  1. See: Euractiv (2021) Green MEP accuses Germany of ‘setting a bad example’ in its recovery plan.
  2. See Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (2021) The Recovery Plan in Greece. Setting the Course for a Climate-Neutral and Digital Future?.
  3. See for example: IDDRI (2020) Resilience and Green recovery in Europe: the critical role of the EU Adaptation Strategy.
  4. IRENA (2020) How Falling Costs Make Renewables a Cost-effective Investment.
  5.  See European Commission (2020) “Employment in the energy sector”.
  6. DW (2020) My Europe: Illegal garbage dumps reflect EU’s east-west divide.