The European recovery plan: a policy continuation or a political revival?

, by Eyes on Europe, translated by Mark Hughes

The European recovery plan: a policy continuation or a political revival?

The European Union has recently approved a recovery plan that aims to rebuild the economies of member states hard hit by the global health crisis. This fund, amounting to €750 billion, adheres to the EU’s green growth policy that seeks to significantly reduce carbon emissions by 2050. However, doubts have been raised about this policy: is the European Union going far enough with its policies, or should more be done to effectively tackle the climate emergency?

Europe on the cusp of a revival

On 16 September last year, Ursula Von der Leyen delivered the traditional State of the Union Address for 2020 to the European Parliament. In the climate of instability caused by the global health crisis, the president of the Commission wanted to appear reassuring about the European Union’s ability to overcome these current challenges. Indeed, she stressed her desire to make Europe a leader in climate transition in a world troubled by environmental disasters and political and social crises. She explained: “People want to move out of this corona world, out of this fragility, out of uncertainty. They are ready for change and they are ready to move on. And this is the moment for Europe. The moment for Europe to lead the way from this fragility towards a new vitality.” To back up this ambitious speech, the president of the Commission announced a number of major projects, two of which are worth noting: a carbon border tax that aims to curb European countries’ emissions, and the decision to establish a circular economy model.

Is the European recovery plan the key to the success of Von der Leyen’s project?

The recent health crisis completely destabilised the European economy. In order to counter the GDP falling in many member states (-8.4% in Germany in the second quarter, -15% in Italy, -15.5% in France according to The Economist’s Intelligence Unit), the Commission decided, on 27th May last year, to propose a recovery plan of almost €750 billion. This recovery fund, approved on 21st July by the European Council, aims to resolve a double challenge. On the one hand, the Commission highlighted the need to ensure that the recovery plan is a rescue operation for the European economy. On the other, the plan is also intended to be ambitious and is regarded as a tool that Ursula Von der Leyen can use to propel Europe into a new era.

However, before the recovery plan is even put in place, its aims may seem contradictory. Despite there being a desire to fight climate change, this must fit in with preserving economic growth and thus must use investment in new, digital technologies. The objective is to “make use of digital technologies to achieve the EU’s ambitious environmental goals”. This method could be questioned when digital technologies actively contribute to global warming. For example, the short lifespan of devices and low recycling rates creates a systematic cycle of replacement (a new device every two to three years) which generates large quantities of greenhouse gases. It appears the desire to remain competitive on the global market takes precedence over the fight against global warming.

The tug-of-war between competitiveness and environmental protection

Consequently, while the European Union presents an ambitious environmental policy, it appears plagued by the tug-of-war between increasing competitiveness and protecting the environment. For example, the roll-out of 5G in Europe seems to demonstrate the desire to increase competitiveness. However, the technology has been the subject of debate concerning its environmental impact. According to investigations carried out by France Info news network, a 5G antenna consumes 3.5 times the energy of a 4G antenna. Although the roll-out will be monitored, 5G is on the point of being launched without any study truly evaluating its environmental impact. So competitiveness triumphs over the guarantee of less-polluting technology.

Authors such as Gilbert Rist have emphasised the consequences of this paradoxical pairing of economic growth and environmental protection. According to Rist, the two objectives are irreconcilable, and sustainable development policies based on new digital technology as drivers for economic growth are not viable. Therefore, while the European recovery plan was presented as innovative, it aligns with the paradoxical policy which, for several years, has prevented the progression of European environmental policies.

In 2005, the European Union was already stressing its commitment to implementing an innovative environmental policy with the introduction of the European carbon market. This market also suffered as a result of this tension between commercial and ecological interests. Indeed, in order to avoid a loss of competitiveness for business, a system of exchangeable quotas was put in place so as to allow them to pay to be able to to exceed these quotas. Making this system into a market therefore limits its ability to protect the environment.

The climate emergency and a failure to act

While it is still too early to assess the impact of the new European recovery plan, it remains controversial even before its implementation. Indeed, its innovation has limits when its objectives are aligned with a sustainable development policy which has been used by the EU for several years now. We could ask how this plan aims to make the European Union a model while it continues to allow the desire for increased economic competitiveness to take precedence over environmental protection, even as the climate crisis draws ever closer.

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