December 20, 2023 - 1:00pm

Not even a month after the COP28 climate meeting in Dubai ended with the usual slew of pledges to transition away from fossil fuels, reality is reasserting itself. This has been nicely captured by two recent headlines: “EU’s green funds are under the guillotine” according to Politico, while the Financial Times informs us that “EU countries are not on track to meet their 2030 climate target.”

Given current trends, it is unlikely that they will get back on track anytime soon. The electoral winds in Europe have shifted, especially since Right-wing populist parties made climate change policies one of the main targets of their campaigns. In Germany, the AfD’s Alice Weidel has openly stated that her party would tear down windmills and abandon the country’s 2050 Net Zero emissions goal. These sentiments are increasingly shared by other Right-wing parties from France to Austria, buoyed by continuous surges in the polls. With Europe on the brink of a recession, the climate agenda is unlikely to remain a top priority for voters — meaning it will also lose salience for politicians who have elections to win. 

Once again, Germany is a bellwether. Combining environmental and austerity measures, the traffic light coalition in Berlin decided to cut diesel subsidies and increase the CO2 tax for German farmers. This would add a billion euros per year to the budget, but chancellor Olaf Scholz and his cabinet underestimated the backlash from the agricultural sector. During protests in Berlin at the beginning of this week, the president of the German Farmers’ Association, Joachim Rukwied, gave a stern warning to his government about upcoming protests. “We will be everywhere from January 8, in a way that the country has never experienced before,” he said. “We will not accept this.”

Europe’s agricultural sector feels increasingly squeezed by the EU’s environmental agenda, whether it is Dutch farmers and the use of nitrogen fertilisers, Irish farmers and the demand to kill up to 200,000 cows due to their methane emissions, or plans to reduce farmable land to make room for the EU’s “Nature Restoration Law”. There are further concerns, such as the import of cheap agricultural goods from Ukraine, which has already led to diplomatic issues between Kyiv and EU states Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia.

That agricultural issues can swing elections became clear in the Dutch provincial elections of this year, when the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB) shook off its underdog status to win the popular vote

There is a growing perception that environmental policies and Net Zero are preoccupations restricted to an affluent elite which stands against everything that matters for the average person, especially cheap food and energy. What’s more, this is beginning to translate into significant political leverage for European Right-wingers. Once ridiculed as one-issue parties which only talk about migration, they are now combining the immigration question with the cost-of-living crisis, which could prove a potent combination in upcoming elections.

Do mainstream parties take notice? It would appear so. After proposing to slash funding reserved for renewable energy projects and emissions reductions, there were also suggestions for where the money should go instead: immigration and defence efforts. Obviously, some are starting to see the writing on the wall.