Europe needs a Real Green Deal!


On 1 July, Germany takes over the Presidency of the Council of the EU. The coronavirus and economic crises are still raging, but the climate crisis cannot afford any delay. For this reason, the German government must fight for a Real Green Deal for Europe that combines economy and ecology and sets the course for a socio-ecological market economy. Dr. Ellen Ueberschär, Co-President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, describes what that could look like.

After more than 13 years, the Federal Republic of Germany will once again take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July 2020. In 2007, the EU was at a crossroads. France and the Netherlands had rejected the EU constitutional treaty in referendums and it fell to Germany to breathe new life into the constitutional process, which later gave birth to the historic Lisbon Treaty.

The EU could emerge stronger from the crisis

In 2020, the European Union is once again at a crossroads, but of a very different nature: the coronavirus pandemic has brought Europe to an unprecedented standstill, with economic consequences that are as yet impossible to predict. After a first phase of uncoordinated responses from the Member States, the European Commission has now tabled a proposal for a recovery programme (#nextgenerationEU), which has inspired great hopes for those who have been particularly hard hit by the crisis. It is based on an initiative announced earlier by President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany. The proposal, which has been given the blessing of the Parliament, must now be debated in the Council – alongside the Multiannual Financial Framework – and could allow Europe to come out of the crisis economically and politically stronger than before.

There is little time to be lost, as major threats already exist and have simply been temporarily overshadowed by the public health crisis. The effects of unbridled climate change are already making themselves felt. In 2020, just as was the case in the summer droughts of 2018 and 2019, there has been hardly any rain. Almost all of Europe is being baked dry.  The coronavirus and economic crises are still raging, but the climate crisis cannot afford any delay. To halt climate change, Europe must transition to a consistent green economy, without neglecting social matters. And this is precisely what the recovery programme has the potential to do.

As soon as it took up office, the Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the gravity of the situation. It tabled a “Green European Deal” and also proposed “green investments” for the next EU budget. Neither of these projects is anywhere near implementation; just because something has the word green on it, it does not mean that there actually is any green in it.

Fighting the economic and climate crisis at the same time

In reference to the consequences of the coronavirus crisis, the voices arguing the case against “burdening” businesses with climate policy, are growing louder. They are calling for economic policy to be grey, not green. But this in itself is a misunderstanding laden with consequences: there is now ample evidence that there is no contradiction between ecology and economy, and that they can mutually support each other. Green investments could bolster Europe’s productivity, which has been declining for decades. Climate protection generates new business models and creates jobs; innovative companies contribute to the green transition. The fact that this works is demonstrated by a recent study of the University of Oxford, which analysed 700 fiscal stimulus measures. The findings were that green projects create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns per dollar spend and lead to increased long-term cost savings, by comparison with traditional fiscal stimulus.

For this reason, the German Presidency of the Council has an historic task in front of it: with a Real Green Deal, it could tackle the economic crisis and the climate crisis at the same time. To achieve this, the billions of euros currently being injected into the European economy would have to be spent on introducing structural reforms, to set the course for a socio-ecological market economy. A Real Green Deal needs:


  • Green guarantees: The recovery programme and the EU budget should be aligned along ecological criteria. In other words, anybody receiving European money would have to guarantee that it will be invested sustainably – as a prerequisite for support from Brussels.

  • A European energy transition: Europe needs a massive, across-the-board expansion of renewable energies. To move towards a green hydrogen economy, would for instance need much more energy produced from sun, wind, water and biomass. Equally, investments in green future technologies are needed. A position paper of the German National Academy of Sciences and Engineering Leopoldina, more commonly known as acatech, and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities shows what this could look like. Its recommendations include a clear call to the German Council Presidency to ensure that the European energy transition is accompanied by sanction mechanisms for national blockades.

  • A European investment plan for sustainable infrastructure and industry: A green transition in the transport and industrial sectors will set the course. Europe needs energy-efficient investments in rail and network infrastructures, a faster transition to electric mobility and incentives for industry to move to CO2-neutral and resource-conserving production processes. This also provides an opportunity for the newest members of the European Union. In countries such as Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, green investments and creating jobs would help to halt the exodus of young, highly-qualified people. In this way, a Real Green Deal would benefit more than just the developed industrial countries, as the climate crisis affects the whole planet and tackling it is a challenge for all of Europe.  

  • A sustainable agriculture policy: For many years, the Common Agriculture Policy has been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The new financial framework offers the opportunity for it to become a solution. Germany must take the initiative and move towards positions that focus on the long-term benefits of sustainability for the whole of society instead ofthe short-term interests of the agricultural industry. The negotiations on this will come during the German Council Presidency. The federal government must finally put its cards on the table and come out clearly in favour of bringing together green agriculture policy with economic sustainability for the benefit of small and medium-sized farms.

  • A socio-ecological transformation: The historical model on which the European Green Deal is based, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s America, was a programme of not just economic policy reform, but of socio-political reform as well. The New Deal not only created jobs, but also introduced a great many social advancements such as unions, minimum wage, the 40-hour week and pension, social and unemployment insurance. These achievements are a reminder that in-depth transformations must be accompanied by socio-political measures. A Real Green Deal would have to be not only ecologically sound, but socially sound as well. This is the only way to keep the promise of future security and prosperity.

  • A digital transformation: It will only be possible to achieve the whole range of green objectives if digital technologies are put into service. The digital transformation must therefore be rooted in greener methods of production. This will involve many challenges, from resources to questions of governance. The coronavirus crisis has just demonstrated the potential of digitalisation, but has also made clear that there are enormous gaps in security and digital justice. The Green European Deal must start here and be connected to the regulatory initiatives already in train.

  • And finally, a European climate protection law: All these objectives must be anchored in a European climate protection law under the German Presidency of the Council. A legally binding framework is an extremely important condition. This will give businesses and citizens the security to allow them to make long-term plans and investments. Without a binding legal framework, many requirements will remain vague and depend on political opportunism. For this reason, the German government must pull out all the stops to ensure that climate protection in the EU is enshrined in law.

When presenting the “Green European Deal”, Ursula von der Leyen framed it as a "man-on-the-moon" moment, comparing her deal to the moon landing. Such pathos needs to be underpinned by concrete activities and not remain empty rhetoric. Although there is considerable opposition from several European governments and various industrial lobbies, a clear majority of European citizens is in favour of a strong European climate policy.  For Germany, this is also reiterated by a survey commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation entitled “Selbstverständlich Europäisch” (European, of course): most Germans are willing to earmark more money for European investments in future issues – particularly under the heading of climate policy. Europeans want a Real Green Deal. A window of opportunity is opening up for the German Presidency of the Council to use the billions of the recovery programme to make significant progress with the Green Deal.