To achieve its climate objective in the neighbourhood, the EU will need to do more than announcing grand strategies and pouring money into neighbourhing countries. In light of possible local resistance and systemic competition with other external players, the EU needs to make its zero-emission goal a shared one and work to enhance its conditionality through appealing and credible incentives and consistency between its words and deeds, writes Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, Research Fellow, at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
Over the last few years, Brussels has been putting greater stress on objectives such as environmental protection and sustainable development, against a backdrop of greater energy dependence, resource scarcity, and the economic and political consequences of climate change. The European Green Deal (EGD), announced in December 2019, incorporates these objectives into a new growth strategy to make the EU bloc a low-carbon economy area and reach zero net emissions by 2050.
The EGD focuses on Europe’s main economic sectors – energy, transport, agriculture, goods production, and consumption – but it also discusses biodiversity protection and the elimination of pollution. However, it would be a mistake to think of the EDG as a strategy related only to the EU economy or integration. The EDG will also be crucial in fostering the “climate dimension” of EU foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis its neighbours and EU candidate countries.
Why a green foreign policy?
The EU has been working to make climate a cornerstone of its foreign policy for several reasons. First of all, the EU has been striving to act as a global climate leader, hence adding up to its soft power and international status thanks to the image of “responsible power” pushing for greater multilateralism and climate responsibility.
Individual EU members such as Italy have sponsored the EDG, saluting it as a chance for the EU to become a real geopolitical player without giving up on its core values. Obviously, concrete national interests also come into play, as Italy is itself trying to promote its role as a climate responsible country: Italy will host the G20 in 2021, and the choice of priorities of the Italian government – People, Planet, and Prosperity, the “three Ps” – signals Rome’s commitment to sustainable growth. Italy will also partner with the UK in the framework of the UN Climate Change Conference COP 26. Even Enel – Italy’s main energy company – signed the Manifesto “Recovering from the pandemic with a New Green Deal in Italy” promoted by a local foundation for sustainable development.
Nevertheless, the main reason for the EU’s climate focus probably lies in security.
Climate issues can also undermine peace, particularly in fragile states. Scholars do not fully agree on a causality link between climate change and conflict, but some well-established points support the theory that the rise in global temperatures will likely impact both armed conflicts within states and interstate conflicts. First, social groups that depend heavily on specific natural resources’ supplies and lack alternatives may be more likely to pursue hostile strategies. This, coupled with factors such as poverty, ethnic or other types of social cleavages, weapons availability, and weak institutions, to name a few, may spur conflict between those who can access resources and those who cannot. Second, climate change may also create new and contested abundance; this is the case with the Arctic, in which the temperatures rise transformed into an “emerging frontier (…) open for business” and object of geopolitical competition.
Another reason is the modernisation of the economy. Environmental-friendly policies can boost the citizens’ quality of life, competitiveness, modernisation of industries, investments, both at home and abroad. The environment is an infrastructure-intensive sector, and it is functional to the EU’s promotion of sustainable growth. Hence, climate change is likely to become one of the most serious—if not the dominant threat—to individual and global security, but it can also be seen as an opportunity. These issues’ reverberations on the influx of refugees and the EU neighbourhood’s political and economic stability make the issue all the more important for Brussels.
A climate agenda for the EU neighbourhood and enlargement policies
The EU has been trying to include a climate dimension in a key aspect of its foreign policy, that is, its neighbourhood and enlargement policies. As for the EU neighbourhood policy (ENP), the EU envisages three dimensions: a regional level, a bilateral one, and cross-border cooperation mechanism. At the regional level, both the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) and the Eastern Partnership (EaP) include a clear environment priority justified by “shared environmental challenges.” Trade is a crucial component of the EU regional integration schemes, and the EU vows to “use trade policy to ensure sustainability and build partnerships with its neighbours.” This will be implemented mainly at the bilateral level, where the EU will put its climate protection provisions at the centre of Action Plans or Association Agreements signed by the EU and individual ENP partners. To date, there are 12 bilateral Action Plans or Association Agendas signed with ENP countries. Finally, cross-border cooperation on the EU’s external borders will keep promoting cooperation between an EU country and a neighbouring country sharing a land border or sea crossing; such mechanism focuses on environmental protection, public health, and security, showing the EU’s holistic approach to climate policies.
Obviously, climate rules and normative transfer and conditionality are even stricter when it comes to EU candidate countries. On one side, stakes are higher for the EU, as it wants to make sure that heavy polluting countries will not join the bloc; on the other side, Brussels has stronger tools and more political leverage on candidate countries – provided that its commitment to enlargement remains credible. Candidate countries, especially in the Western Balkans, are pushed to adopt emissions-cutting measures and turn to renewables that, as research shows, should enhance their sound economic growth. A carbon-free- Western Balkan region sounds difficult, but not impossible to achieve: a study demonstrated that a “Western Balkans Green Deal” could be achieved by 2050 if local governments and societies were willing to accept high investment costs to pursue the main goal — zero emissions – and if the EU scaled up its support. Furthermore, Brussels has plans to deploy an anti-climate-dumping tool against imports that undercut the bloc’s green ambitions. This mechanism would prevent companies from moving manufacturing and production capacity outside of the EU’s regulatory reach to regions where environmental standards are less stringent.
Is an EU climate foreign policy feasible?
A true climate foreign policy means, of course, more than reducing emissions. As Wolfgang Ischinger claims, climate security has to be embedded strategically and operationally in EU foreign policies, such as development aid, global health security, conflict prevention, climate diplomacy, and global economic and trade policies. The EU is trying to do so in its neighbourhood, too.
However, there are structural and geopolitical challenges to overcome before calling an EU green foreign policy a success story. Sometimes, the enemy comes from within. This seems to be the case with Poland and other post-Communist countries. For the EGD to materialise and permeate EU foreign policy, all Member States need to fully align their national policies with the EU’s 2050 zero-emissions objective. Yet, countries with a strong dependence on coal and lower socio-economic development levels may struggle to abide by the EU’s climate commitments. For instance, Poland has been dubbed the enfant terrible of climate negotiations and stressed that it could only reach climate neutrality “at its own pace” and with financial support adequate to the scale of challenges.
Apart from the obvious difficulties in changing deep-seated development models – especially when it comes to developing countries – and local reticence, the EU may also find it hard to co-exist with other international actors promoting different developing models or plainly trying to counter the EU’s efforts. The most relevant example is China, an active player – and potentially a disruptive one – in the Western Balkans. The region started assuming more and more relevance for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The $900 billion-worth global infrastructural project has been increasingly under the scrutiny of the EU. The BRI is accused of hampering Western Balkan-EU integration in three primary ways: trapping countries into debt (so-called “debt-trap diplomacy”), lowering environmental standards and perpetuating corruption. In particular, the EU Parliament denounced in a 2018 Report that BRI’s host countries award contracts directly to Chinese firms rather than through open tenders, disregarding the EU’s energy and transport acquis and related standards (e.g., environment and competition).
To achieve its climate objective in the neighbourhood, the EU will need to do more than announcing grand strategies and pouring money into neighbourhing countries. In light of possible local resistance and systemic competition with other external players, the EU needs to make its zero-emission goal a shared one and work to enhance its conditionality through appealing and credible incentives and consistency between its words and deeds.