January 21, 2024 - 8:00am

In hindsight, 2024 may well be remembered as the year of the Great Reversal on EU climate policy. That many of the most ambitious emissions goals will not be achievable has been common knowledge for a while now, but until recently the policies themselves had not been questioned. There was a widespread consensus that the European Union was in position to be a global leader for emissions reductions and the green transition away from fossil fuels. 

Now, this consensus is crumbling. Nothing demonstrates this more than the growing gap between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her own party in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP) — which is led by another German, Manfred Weber. 

Von der Leyen has been a champion of green policies, including the phasing out of the internal combustion engine (ICE) or nature restoration laws that would limit the use of land for agricultural purposes. Weber, on the other hand, has demanded more support for German farmers and must manage a growing movement within his party (technically an alliance of parties, as one cannot vote directly for the EPP in EU elections) which wants to postpone or reverse the ban of ICE cars. 

The changing attitude of the EPP becomes understandable if one looks at the polling. The “populist” Right is surging in the polls, a rise partly down to growing public resistance to climate policies seen as too ambitious. While von der Leyen has the advantage of being an unelected bureaucrat who cannot be deposed by the will of the electorate, her colleagues in the EPP do not have that luxury. Their place in Parliament would be under threat if they were perceived as ignoring voter demands; unsurprisingly, then, the EPP’s stance on emissions reduction at all costs is softening. 

The European Right has discovered anger against Net Zero policies as a powerful theme for mobilising disenchanted voters, as demonstrated by farmer protests in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany. A number of parties across the continent, from the Austrian FPÖ to the German AfD and the RN in France, have been quick to make this a main campaign issue. 

What was once an issue for left-of-centre parties to win over voters has now become a toxic vote-loser. This shift shouldn’t surprise us: Europeans support taking action on climate change — just so long as it doesn’t affect their lifestyles. 

Once it becomes clear that reducing emissions comes at a significant cost, support for corresponding policies falls dramatically. The German example of the last two years has shown that the green transition is not leading to more jobs and prosperity, but instead the opposite. Germany was the worst performing major economy in 2023, and Economy Minister Robert Habeck has announced that this struggle will persist for the foreseeable future. None of this enthuses the electorate, and von der Leyen’s position — closer to that of Habeck than that of Weber — is increasingly viewed as a liability in the battle for votes.