Could we bypass the European Council?

Could those wanting more action on climate change and energy transition bypass the European Council to get there? Is such a strategy ultimately inevitable? And if so, rather than wait, why not demand to start now?

Dangerous delays

No sooner than the ink was dry on the Commission’s 2030 document last month, key political figures were busy lowering expectations on the timing of next steps towards a new climate and energy framework.

The next day in Davos Barroso said that Europe will pledge its “first contributions” as part of a new global deal in “spring 2015“, only after a September UN Climate Summit specifically called to collect such pledges. 

Four days later Van Rompuy then told a corporate dinner that next month’s upcoming summit would hold only a “first discussion” on further pollution cuts for the decade ahead.

Though pushing back the calender was not mentioned in the Commission press room on launch day, the expectation to defer key decisions was discussed then among commissioners, as the college minutes for 22 January now show.

Deferring decisions beyond this spring inevitably delays them to after the upcoming hiatus of Parliament elections, top appointments and the new college due 1 November.

But why did the two presidents cut and run like this? Are they tired and unmotivated near the end of their mandates? Partly so. Would incoming principals have more vigour for the challenges ahead? It depends who we get.

The biggest single factor though are the delays triggered by the procedural obstacle that now lies in front of us: deciding by consensus.

How to ensure progress

The European Council, in which heads of government sit, acts ordinarily “by consensus” and is the only institution formally to do so. This body’s main job is not to legislate but rather to provide the Union “with the impetus for its development” and to define its “general political directions and priorities.” (cf. Article 15 TEU. The Union’s primary objectives are defined by Article 3 TEU.)

Specific legislation is drafted and agreed by the Commission, Parliament and the Council of Ministers (a different institution to the European Council) that, according to the treaties, shall act ordinarily by majority voting. In Parliament, voting is the norm. In Council and Commission, while in practice votes are rarer, in principle the possibility to do so is ever present.

In 2011-2012 three times a single Council delegation vetoed political endorsements of further EU climate action in the form of ‘2050 Roadmap’ analyses (albeit under different conditions not discussed here). It’s possible that similar vetoes by just one or a few delegations not holding a 92-vote blocking minority could occur again soon.

Given such a fundamental difference between the ways these key bodies work, why put decisions on climate action to the one institution whose procedural rules have the lowest chance of success or would produce a much weaker outcome, particularly when there is no legal requirement to do so? When climate progress needs sustained, concerted and binding actions, this all-or-nothing deal-making is almost certain to fail.

Even if the European Council were to endorse a 2030 greenhouse gas reduction goal, adequate or otherwise, specific legislative proposals would anyway still then need to pass through the other institutions, duplicating efforts and consuming more time.

Moving forward again

Often national political objections to EU initiatives are based on misunderstanding, fear, exaggeration, misrepresentation and/or manipulation by vested interests rather than any genuine difficulties. Climate actions after the fact are often found to have been easier, cheaper and quicker to achieve than had been imagined beforehand, e.g. 2015 car emission standards met early. Europe-wide actions also create their own market efficiencies through economies of scale.

If present difficulties in achieving a consensus among all 28 government heads are expected still to be there in one or two years time, why wait around for such painful public failure to be played out in slow motion? People will simply get bored and walk away as frustration with inaction turns to disengagement. Remaining political actors will still be faced with the same dilemmas then as they are now.

The logical conclusion therefore is to move now from discussion to legislation and for the Commission to draft legislation for final adoption by ordinary legislative procedures. The basic structure of climate laws (ETS and non-ETS) is not expected to change. Parliament and Council can co-decide democratically using majority voting as the treaties provide for.

In the near term, there will be some institutional hiatus caused by changing mandates this summer. But to move from talk to action will in general create greater reassurance for citizens, greater confidence for progressive businesses and investors, and a much fairer process for everyone. After all, this is what Europe was originally designed to do.

Final word

I accept this scenario may turn out to be wholly wrong and that Van Rompuy and his officials may yet pull a rabbit out of a hat. If so, great. But I think we also do ourselves a disservice if at least we don’t consider all options open to us, evaluating each on its prospects as they appear to us.

One thought on “Could we bypass the European Council?

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