“To make change fair”
What does Europe's future look like? EU Commissioner Timmermans explains why the Green Deal is particularly important in the coronavirus crisis.
EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans is Executive Vice President of the EU Commission and Commissioner for Climate Protection. The former Foreign Minister of the Netherlands has been a member of the Commission since 2014
Mr Timmermans, How does the Covid-19 pandemic affect the Green Deal?
The covid19-crisis has shown us how fragile we are. It has also made us realise again how much we value our health. While we battle this immediate crisis, the climate crisis and the biodiversity crises are still here and very real. And these too directly affect our health and wellbeing. The thawing of the permafrost in Siberia where temperatures are extremely high, the loss of nature and increased contacts between humans and wildlife, all can lead to zoonoses.
I would like to stress that the Green Deal is not a luxury for rich people, it is a necessity for all people. We presented it as a growth strategy back in December 2019, and now, as we look forward to a recovery post-covid19, it has only become more pertinent and important. My premise is the following; if we are about to unlock billions of euro’s in order to bolster our economies and ensure people can get back to work again, we can only spend this money once. Moreover, this is money that is going to be a debt on the shoulders of our children. So we better spend it wisely and get it right from the get-go. We better not spend it on an obsolete sputtering carbon economy of the past century, but invest it in a green, inclusive and resilient economy of the 21st century.
Are you concerned that the Corona crisis will distract people from the climate crisis even in the long run?
Are people distracted by corona? For now, sure, and I fully understand that their first concern is their health and their job. It’s instructive to look back to 2008 when Vice President Al Gore presented his book and documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. For a while he captured audiences worldwide who suddenly started to realise that there was a climate problem. Then Lehman Brothers fell, and everyone was caught up in the financial crisis and forgot about it. But this time it’s really different, you can sense it everywhere. People are getting it, cities are getting it, and even industries are getting it. What it takes is for national governments to also get it, and we’re getting there quickly too.
Representatives of business and industry argue that they won’t be able to comply with increasingly tough environmental standards due to the economic crisis.
My answer is that sooner or later they will have to come to terms with this new reality anyway. Perhaps you could postpone investment decisions or decisions to change for a few years more, but eventually reality would have caught up with you. Even without the Green Deal the transition was already happening, a bit uncoordinated, but unmistakably it was happening. Because everything is changing. We are in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution, the way we live, work, consume, discard, everything is changing. Covid and the ensuing economic crisis will force us to take decisions to invest and change much, much quicker. We can stand back, close our eyes and hope everything will simply stay as it was, but it won’t. So either we are going to be masters of our fate, our fate will be masters of us. If we for instance would say ‘first economic recovery, then greening later’, we would put money into the same old carbon spewing assets that soon will be stranded. That is a lose-lose proposition. How is it, for instance, possible that we somehow accept that every year 400.000 people die prematurely because of air pollution? How is that normal? I think business understands that a shift is necessary. And to be honest, the CEO’s I speak to, and I have spoken a lot, mostly understand this. They don’t necessarily like it, but they understand it and as simply: be clear, be consistent. Because if there is some regulatory certainty they can then start investing. Things can go a lot quicker than we think. Just look at solar cells, or electric cars. Once the market catches on, there’s no stopping this transition. And again, we will have to make sure that this transition is a fair one, or it won’t happen.
Do you think that the Corona crisis can give the EU a new sense of the importance of cohesion and cooperation – also in terms of climate policy?
I understand that the first reactions of some member states were national, also because some felt the EU as a whole wasn’t moving fast enough. But as soon as these arrangements were made, they were immediately embedded in a European scheme. Ultimately, the EU member states realise that only by working together, by cooperating we can beat this. And the same goes for many other challenges. Look around the world, everything we took for granted is being questioned. The US is still our most important ally, but our relations have been put into new relief. Russia is meddling in Europe’s affairs and China has become a strategic rival.
There are only two kinds of states in Europe: small states, and states who do not yet realise they are small. The EU is a unique place to live, arguably the best place to live in the world. We are dealing with the corona crisis, we have certainly made mistakes, and I’m sure we will make more, but we by and large we have managed to work together and base our policies on the best science and evidence we can get. And while we surely always do better, when you look around the globe, we aren’t doing half bad. When it comes to the Green Deal; as the old raison d’etre of European integration and cooperation was not having the same allure it used to have, fighting the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis, in the interest of the health and wellbeing of our European citizens could be the new raison d’etre.
Does the EU Coronavirus aid package consider ecological aspects sufficiently?
Yes, I’m satsifed that we presented a recovery package ‘NextGenerationEU’ of this magnitude and with strong Green DNA embedded in it. When member states will present their national plans for recovery, the green transition is going to be an important part of it, as is digital. This is what the European leaders asked for, and this is what we are proposing. And it should be, for we have to build a green, inclusive and resilient economy. If we don’t, those who will be hit hardest by these crises, whether by covid, by faltering businesses, by climate change or environmental degradation are always the most vulnerable and those who can least afford it. What we’re doing here, what we’re putting on the table is meant for everyone. This time we won’t leave anyone behind. But now it’s up to the Member States and Parliament to negotiate and come to an agreement on the whole package. If we get this right, Europe will be a trailblazer and lead the way in dealing with the Climate, cleaning our air and water, producing more sustainable and nutritious food, helping people to renovate their homes and lowering their energy bills, electrifying our public and private transport, creating local jobs, and moving towards a carbon free economy. So let’s get it right.
What are your expectations of the German presidency of the EU Council in terms of climate policy?
I have very high expectations. Germany is a very special European country. It is a country that has shown time and again that it can rise above itself, in terms of its industrial power, but also in terms of its moral and political power. A country that has determined that its national interest coalesces with the collective European interest. To be sure, Germany can lead, together with France, but also with other member states. And as it leads it doesn’t bully as seems to be the vogue in the world right now, but it accommodates, listens, cajoles and brings others along.
I think it is a propitious time that Germany will soon be at the helm of the Council of the European Union. And when it does I sincerely hope that it will help lead Europe towards a green recovery. I have seen Bundeskanzler Merkel’s and Olaf Scholz’s strong statements. I have also seen Germany’s first decisions that are very promising. I know it’s not always going to be easy, but paraphrasing JFK ‘we don’t do easy’. This is one of the most existential crises we are facing, our solutions must be proportionate to the challenge their facing. There is much to be concerned about, but when I look at the energy and passion of our young who are demanding a better future, and are educating my generations, I’m very optimistic and hopeful for our future. And I hope that if anything, covid will have taught us that facts matter, that science matters, that good governance matters, and that democracy, free speech, rule of law, it all matters. I hope it will also have shown us, that if we come together in this Union, there is little we cannot do, together. I wish Germany good luck. Because if Germany does well, we all do well. And if we all do well in the EU, Germany fares well too.
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