The coronavirus pandemic has put most of Europe on lockdown over the past few months—EU advocacy, however, is going strong. Having quickly learned the rules of the new “virtual” normal, the wide range of EU interest groups have not missed the chance to use these unprecedented circumstances to defend their interests, some even more actively and vocally than ever. The kick-off of the German Presidency of the EU Council on 1 July is likely to open the window for engagement around the EU energy and sustainability policies even wider.
Unsurprisingly, the first half of the year has been dominated by discussions over the future of the European Green Deal, a flagship initiative of the new EU executive announced only a few months before the pandemic hit. Many industries—from chemical and automotive to plastics—have been urging the European Commission to delay the implementation of environmental legislation and regulatory obligations. One of the most far-reaching requests came from the biggest lobby group Business Europe, well-known for its conservative stances. In a letter to European Council President Charles Michel, the association called for all non-essential elements of the Green Deal to be put on hold.
The vast majority of industry actors, however, have been voicing their support for the European Green Deal, and see it as a tool to help reboot Europe’s economy after the coronavirus crisis. Ad hoc business coalitions have emerged across many sectors to advocate for one or several aspects of the Green Deal to be prioritised. Among them, one initiative stands out: the Green Recovery Alliance, a personal project of Pascal Canfin, a French politician, MEP and current Chair the European Parliament’s Environment (ENVI) Committee. Thanks to its strong, yet widely acceptable message, combined with high profile membership, the initiative has genuinely caught on, attracting signatures from over 300 CEOs, ministers, members of the European Parliament and NGOs. With a more open and less preferential joining process, the number of corporate supporters would be even higher.
So, which side has been more successful? While some Green Deal initiatives were indeed postponed, these delays have mainly been due to internal Commission processes. The European Commission reiterated its commitment to the European Green Deal and made it a centrepiece of its strategy to relaunch the European economy. However, the game is not over yet. Discussions around the “green recovery” and the Multiannual Financial Framework are only just starting, with EU member states required to give their unanimous blessing.
In this context, Germany, taking over the rotating EU Council Presidency on 1 July, is all set to become a key actor to determine the EU agenda in the second half of the year. It should come as no surprise that the Presidency has already become a new target for advocacy groups.
The official programme of the German government has clearly codified its support for the Commission’s Green Deal, and includes the commitment to pass a binding law enshrining the announced climate neutrality target for 2050. However, the new Presidency also offers significant opportunities for companies across various industries to get active in the EU policy arena through a national inlet.
What does this mean in practice? As the Presidency rotates every six months, there is always a blank slate of “fresh” stakeholders for companies to engage with. The opportunity lies in the fact that firms can directly have an impact on EU-wide decision-making and agenda-setting via government officials with whom they are already familiar in their home countries. In the specific case of Germany, the number of actors which are present in the national market and for which this applies is huge—especially in the climate-relevant spaces of energy, industry and mobility. It is important to note that this counts not only for companies of German origin, but rather all that are active and have significant stakes in the Bundesrepublik—a notable differentiator to some smaller EU states that take the seat.
So, what is happening? Firms from traditional industries such as the gas and automotive sectors are actively promoting their agendas. The gas sector is massively focused on progressing their position on hydrogen and the EU’s respective strategy framework, from which the companies hope to benefit as key players in infrastructure and production. Further, the current debate on methane leakage from pipelines remains an issue for the gas industry. In contrast, automotive firms seek influence on a supranational level on developments around e-mobility and CO2 emission quotas. Nevertheless, the German EU Council Presidency is also an opportunity for companies in the renewable energy sector, which perhaps until now did not have significant EU exposure but are crucial to achieving the EU’s ambitious climate goals.
Despite the unprecedented circumstances, 2020 holds significant advocacy opportunities at the EU level. As we are emerging from the initial phase of the coronavirus crisis and policy work speeds up, the second half of the year will be crucial for the private sector to strategically and transparently navigate this new green recovery landscape.