Europe’s politics of self - and others

Krzysztof Bobinski
20 October 2008

It seems that even late in the 21st-century's first decade much of humanity is still living in the turn-of-the-millennium mood that half expects the world to come to an end. We went through it around the year 1,000 CE with all those millenarian sects. This time around, the approach to new year's eve 1999 was filled with febrile predictions of a worldwide computer crash. That didn't happen, but 9/11 kept the atmosphere going. Now, the financial crisis and its end-of-capitalism accompanying score has something of the same feel; and as if that were not enough, the dangers of climate change are an insistent drumbeat behind every public argument.
Krzysztof Bobiński is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)
The other fears remain, and their admixture (jihadism plus nuclear weapons, or economic recession plus democratic rollback, for example) can make the post-millennial mood-music even darker. But with climate change, the finis mundi phenomenon is real, and demands a different order of coordinated, long-term policy-making. This time it's serious. 

The European Union is doing its best to stave off the great flood by attempting to build its version of Noah's ark - namely, a programmatic document called the "climate action and renewable energy package". The planned content is as ambitious as the timescale for completion (the end of 2008); it is designed to be so virtuous as to convince the rest of the world to match the carbon-emission reduction commitments the EU proposes to make at the climate-change conferences in Poznan (1-12 December 2008) and Copenhagen (30 November-11 December 2009).

In Europe, it can seem that it rains only to pour. It happened that the financial crisis that had for a time looked as if it might be confined to the United States hit Europe hard a few days before the European Union summit in Brussels on 15-16 October 2008. That issue naturally had to share equal billing at the top of the agenda with the scheduled headline matter - reviewing progress on the climate-change package. European leaders thus found themselves facing two system-challenging phenomena at the same time. A difficult challenge at any time, even more when Europe is beset by a permanent agenda of unresolved items (Russia, energy, enlargement).

Two crises for one

It proved easier to make progress on policy towards the financial turmoil. Gordon Brown, the (previously) embattled British prime minister - not known for his affection for the European Union - was able to use some of the credit he had built in launching a domestic bank-bailout plan to offer the assembled leaders advice about how Europe as a whole might face the crisis in the shorter term. Moreover, Brown had long pushed the idea of convening a major conference designed to look at the whole Bretton Woods system of international governance set up in 1944 and ask whether this model - embodied in the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) - needs to be reformed in order to match the problems facing a very different world. This suggestion was adopted at the summit by Nicolas Sarkozy (current holder of the EU as well as the French presidency). All in all, this part of the summit was a further triumph for Gordon Brown.

There was somewhat less vision and more difficulty with regard to the climate-change package. Some countries, including Poland and Italy, have come to see this as a European plot aimed at destroying their industry. Indeed, so far has the debate moved that several European voices seem to have forgotten the core purpose of the EU's climate policy - to cut back emissions of CO2, the main cause of anthropogenic global warming. In face of opposition and threats of veto by the two prime ministers - Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Poland's Donald Tusk - the EU leaders stuck to their timetable to approve the package by December; but it seems inevitable that it will be watered down.

Poland's objections centre on the plan to introduce auctions for permits to emit C02 in 2013. The European commission says this will raise electricity prices in the EU by an average of 20%, but Poland - whose generating system is coal-based - says its domestic prices will increase by as much as 100%. Thus, Poland wants the auction scheme to be phased in to give more time for it to cut emissions; yet meanwhile the country is doing very little to conserve energy or put in place alternative, renewable energy sources.

The contrast in the way the two headline issues were discussed at the summit is marked - in terms both of unity (on finance) versus division (on climate change); and of the absence of debate (certainly in the new member-states like Poland) on climate change about the implications for Europe's relations with the rest of the world and the way the world will need to develop in the aftermath of the most pressing current crises.

This paucity of debate is a pity, for much could have been learned about the inevitable coming negotiation between those member-states which want to weaken the package (and the European commission) and those which want to maintain it. In turn, this will be a dress-rehearsal for the conversation the rich post-industrial countries of Europe are bound to have with "the rest" (led by China and India).

In openDemocracy on Europe, climate change, and financial turmoil:

Dieter Helm, "Europe's energy future: in the dark" (16 January 2007)

Mats Engström, "Europe's green power" (26 March 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)

Christoph Neidhart, "The Malthusian energy-trap: old Europe, new China" (13 December 2007)

Avinash Persaud, "Europe's financial crisis: the integration lesson" (7 October 2008)

On the European Union side, the Poles and other recent member-states are saying that they need more time to implement the proposals. Those which have coal-based power systems producing more C02 would have to shift to gas or nuclear-power to make a palpable difference in emissions - but that would either strengthen Russia's hand (as a major gas-supplier) or raise the Chernobyl-spectre (which is still strong in east-central Europe).

The other European states have to consider these circumstances. It needs to get the climate package right - for if it doesn't, how can it conduct a credible negotiation with China and India and the rest? These emerging giants see no reason why they should curtail their growth to mitigate the global-warming problem which was produced by the richer countries.

Together, safer

These dilemmas cannot be evaded at the world climate-change conference in Poznan (December 2008) and Copenhagen (November-December 2009). There was a foretaste in a preparatory conference of environment ministers from more than thirty countries in Warsaw on 13-14 October. The meeting was surprisingly amicable. After all, what links environment ministers is their common dislike and mistrust - not of each other, but of their colleagues from their finance / economy ministries. In addition, they share a belief in the climate-change threat and the need to address it; they are divided only over the question of who is going to pay for cleaning up the damage and how much this will cost.

In Warsaw, delegates from western countries pleaded that funds could not come from their budgets. This explains why they said that emissions-trading schemes (ETS) were the only way to raise money - which means the burden of cost will fall either on the power companies or (more likely) on consumers in the polluting countries. The advanced countries and those which don't pollute (but which are already being hit by changes in the weather) were united in asking why ETS schemes were so difficult to implement. The contrast between the financial crisis and the climatic was invoked conveniently here. "It took a few days to find  billions to prop up the financial system", said one Warsaw attendee, "but when it comes to the fate of poorer countries then the problems mount".

Gordon Brown is quite right to say that the world's governance of its affairs has to change, and that the post-1945 order has changed so much that new actors such as China and India (as well as Brazil, South Africa, and others) have to be given leading roles. The debate about what to do about climate change (including who is to pay) is in its way an extension of the aid debate. But it is no longer simply a moral issue. If the future of the planet (or at least the low- lying bits of it) is at stake, then political leaders will have to start showing a little more leadership and imagination when talking about the future.

The European summit showed that Europe's leaders can show leadership and imagination when it comes to defending the interests of their voters. But there is still a little way to go when it comes to recognising that the problems Europe and the world faces are all interconnected. Maybe the big global-governance conference before the end of 2008 can help them focus on that one. 

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