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Our responsibility towards future generations — Frans Timmermans and the European Green Deal

In the European Union, it is the European Commission which proposes legislation, looking for initiatives for the EU’s future beyond the immediate horizon. One of the most visible people in the Commission, besides President Ursula von der Leyen, has been Frans Timmermans. This is not only because he is Executive Vice-President in the Commission but also because in the last six months, since the Commission has been in office, he has launched multiple proposals regarding his core responsibility, the European Green Deal. Below an overview of some of the main elements he has launched and some key comments he has given on them.

By Gaston Moonen

Making the European Green Deal the Commission’s top priority

In July 2019, Ursula von der Leyen was put forward as the surprise candidate to become the President of the new European Commission. As Germany’s Minister of Defence at that time, she had not been involved in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament; nor had she been the European People’s Party (EPP)’s nomination for the Commission’s Presidency — that was Manfred Weber. To persuade the newly-elected European parliamentarians to vote for her as an outsider, she clearly had to listen carefully to their political wishes and priorities. With the slogan ‘A Europe that strives for more’, she launched her political guidelines, in which she presented six headline ambitions for the EU for the 2019–2024 period (see Figure 1). The European Green Deal is on top of this list, being key to live up to the commitments made by the EU and its Member States in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Figure 1 — Priorities of the Von der Leyen Commission

Frans Timmermans — the ‘Green Deal’ Commissioner

Ursula von der Leyen decided to give one of her big political competitors for the Commission’s Presidency, Frans Timmermans — who had been the Socialists and Democrats’s candidate for the post — the task of preparing, launching and implementing the Green Deal. Within the previous Juncker Commission, he had been the First Vice-President, in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-Institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights and a particularly visible Commissioner. As Executive Vice President in the von der Leyen Commission, he became responsible not only for the European Green Deal, but also for drafting the first European Climate Law to reach the 2050 climate-neutrality target. This includes a whole set of actions, ranging from stepping up the 2030 emission reduction target to 50%, to developing a biodiversity strategy for 2030, and reviewing tax policies and the Energy Taxation Directive, including the introduction of a carbon border tax.

On 11 December 2019, Frans Timmermans presented the European Green Deal. Since then, he launched a set of proposals to specify for several parts of the Green Deal, the targets that need to be reached and the possible pathways to them (see also page 131). Each of these proposals will be translated into legislation for adoption by the European Parliament and the Council. The first legislative proposal is the European Climate Law, which enshrines this 2050 climate neutrality target and aspects on the increased targets for 2030.

Europe’s role in green transition across the world

As well as coming across as passionate, Frans Timmermans has been very clear in his objectives with the Green Deal and its underlying proposals. According to one of his team members, three key issues stand out in his approach to making the EU carbon-neutral :

  • solidarity in the EU, leaving no one behind;
  • developing a clean, carbon-neutral economy — and, after Covid-19, helping economies recover towards this goal; and
  • enabling the transition in each Member State in a way which suits it, while preserving the Union’s unity .

In many of the presentations Frans Timmermans has given in relation to the Green Deal and its underlying elements, he has appealed to engagement and responsibility, the explicit role Europe has to play in green transition across the world, and the solidarity and funds needed to get everybody on board. Below are some of the issues and concerns he has highlighted.

When speaking about the European Green Deal to the European Parliament on 11 December 2019:

If you are a responsible Member of Parliament, if you’re in a responsible position in the Commission, if you’re a citizen, if you’re a parent, you do not have the luxury to ignore the facts. Look at what’s happening in Greenland. Look at what’s happening globally with our climate. Look at the desertification. Look at the erratic weather. Look at the people suffering because of this erratic weather across Europe. Look at what’s happening to our biodiversity as we speak. We do not have the luxury to ignore this anymore.

So the question we have to face today as Europeans is this: are we going to try and be masters of this momentous change, of this paradigm shirt, or are we just going to let it happen?

…if this is not a social Green Deal, the Green Deal will not happen.

When presenting the European Green Deal investment Plan and Just Transition Mechanism in January 2020:

What we are doing here is a message to coal miners in Asturias, Western Macedonia or Silesia. To the peat harvesters in the Irish Midlands. Baltic regions reliant on oil shale, and many more. We know you face a steeper path towards climate neutrality. (…) This Just Transition Mechanism — of at least 100 billion euros — is a pledge that the European Union stands with you in this transition.

Let me end on one thing, yes it was said, I am a grandson of coal miners, that’s right. But I also know: the writing is on the wall is for coal, there is no future in coal! And if you want to ignore that reality, you can continue subsidising mines for years and years to come at great expense.

When speaking about the first European Climate Law in January 2020:

…my fundamental point is: we can do this! We have the science, we have the technology, we can certainly find the money. (…) if you just look at the size of investment that is still being done in fossil fuels. If you reorient that or at least part of it into this direction, we can find the money.

The climate law, in my view, in simple words is important because it will discipline everyone in this process, especially on the political side, to take the necessary steps, to deliver on this promise to become climate neutral by 2050. And it will give the institutions that need to coordinate this also the legal possibility to act when those who made promises don’t deliver on the promises. So it is an exercise in discipline in this transformational age. (…) people will be horribly disappointed if we do not start soon delivering concrete actions. And in that context I hope the climate law can be extremely useful. (…) our biggest challenge is to get the governance of this right. (…) the ‘what’ is not longer the real issues, it’s the ‘how’ that is the real issue.

And introducing it in March 2020:

The European Climate Law is also a message to our international partners that this is the year to raise global ambition together, in the pursuit of our shared Paris Agreement. The Climate Law will ensure we stay focused and disciplined, remain on the right track and are accountable for delivery.

When presenting the New Circular Economy Action Plan in March 2020:

Today, our economy is still mostly linear, with only 12% of secondary materials and resources being brought back into the economy. Many products break down too easily, cannot be resued, repaired or recycled, or are made for single use only. There is a huge potential to be exploited…

When speaking to the EP Committee ENVI (Environment, Public Health and Food Safety) on 21 April on the Covid-19 crisis and the European Green Deal:

I’m almost 59 years old, but I have never seen a challenge as big as this Covid-19 crisis. This is a challenge that nobody could have predicted. We have seen decades of habits change within mere weeks. Many of the things we assumed would be eternal or changing very gradually have suddenly changed in a radical way. We probably have to reinvent the way we live, the way we relate to others, the way we consume, the way we produce, the way we see our international relations.

This is the very moment that we must appeal to our fight impulse and not to our flight impulse. It remains to be seen whether we as Europeans are able to understand that we can only fight on the basis of the values that define us: if we stick together, if we create pan European answers to a global problem. If instead the flight impulse dominates, if Member States go at it alone, then certainly some of us will stumble. And when some of us stumble, all of us will fall.

The European Green Deal is not just a way to confront the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis, but also a way to give Europe a growth strategy that is a winning strategy, not just for Europe itself but also globally. Now if this is to work, then we have to make sure that we are all on the same page.

When presenting the Biodiversity Strategy and the Farm to Fork Strategy on 20 May 2020:

…by destroying nature at an unprecedented rate (…) we literally threaten our own life, our health and our well-being. As climate and biodiversity crises are fully interconnected, stopping biodiversity loss is a precondition for reaching climate neutrality. It is an economic imperative as well, as almost half of the world’s GDP is linked to nature.

The Farm to Fork strategy builds a value of sustainability through the food chain. (…) We also aim to curb the use of antimicrobials that lead to 33 000 deaths in Europe every year. (…) With this strategy, we will support them [farmers and fishermen and women] in their role to make European food the global standard for sustainability. We estimate that at global level, sustainability food systems can create new economic value of more than 1.8 trillion euros.

On a Green and Just Recovery on 28 May 2020, after the presentation of the NextGenerationEU plan:

The MFF with its 25% allocation for climate action remains the bedrock of our green transition and our economic recovery. And under this new recovery instrument, NextGenerationEU, we will support investments and reforms that are essential for a sustainable recovery. (…)With this package, we also commit to ‘do no harm’ with regard to our climate ambitions. What we do should help us fulfil these ambitions and should not go in the other direction.

…this economic crisis has raised an existential question. ‘Do we rebuild what we had before? Or do we seize the opportunity to restructure and create different and new jobs that can serve us for decades to come?’ We rebuild but in a different direction

The Green Deal — our responsibility towards future generations

As to a more detailed timetable toward climate neutrality for the EU, the Executive Vice-President intends to provide further clarifications by September 2020. As he explains in an interview for the Dutch radio (Vroege Vogels, 16 March 2020): ‘I have seen in Europe that you can put forward nice objectives which are beautiful and might get agreement from everybody. But if you do not bring forward the pathway to this goal you will never arrive there. So what we are doing now is to set-up a timetable guiding us to climate neutrality in 2050. Mind you, timetable, not blueprint. Because you need to be able to adapt things that are not going well and use those solutions that work out well.’ He explained that only by mid September 2020 could such a timetable be expected. ‘Because we need to analyse rather precisely what the consequences are of certain targets in all Member States. If, for example, you would indicate that by 2030 emissions should be reduced by 55% compared with 1990, then this has consequences for the policies in all Member States. This is what we would like to map, in order for all countries to know what they will be up to.’

Furthermore he calls upon scientist to help as much as possible for further quantification towards possible data and how to measure things. He indicated it would not be an easy task to meet the Paris Agreement targets. ‘Of course this will not be easy. This will take a great effort. But if we only do the easy things we would be very lazy and complacent. We need to make that effort and do it right.’

What motivates him to make the Green Deal almost his life work? Frans Timmermans responded in that same interview: ‘I will become, if all goes well, a grandfather for the first time this year. Let’s suppose I have another 20 years. And my grand child is then 20 years old and says “Grandfather, what did you do? You knew that this was going to happen?” I want to be able to respond to my grandchild: I have really tried to contribute. And I tried to engage everybody to do the same. This is the moment where we have to show whether we are capable of fulfilling our responsibility towards future generations.’

This article was first published on the 2/2020 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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