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Von der Leyen faces rebellion as her party seethes over 2040 climate goal

by editor

A mutiny is growing within Ursula von der Leyen’s own political family just days before the EU executive is to endorse an ambitious plan to slash greenhouse gases.

On Tuesday, von der Leyen’s European Commission is expected to back a proposal to cut 90 percent of EU emissions by 2040, according to leaked drafts.

But at a private meeting on Wednesday, European Parliament members from the European People’s Party — von der Leyen’s center-right political group, the largest in the Parliament — condemned the plan and directed their anger at the Commission, according to three people present.

They fumed as to why the EU executive was issuing the target now, of all moments, with anti-green rage simmering, the far right pouncing, the EU election looming, and farmers blockading the front gates of the legislature.

“Everyone was shooting at the 2040 target,” said one EPP official who, like others, was granted anonymity to speak candidly about the internal meeting. “They’re all thinking, ‘what the hell is the Commission thinking?’ With farmers’ protests in France and Belgium and everywhere else? And now they’re just simply throwing a piece of red meat into the room and letting the dogs fight over it.”

The MEPs’ exasperation creates a major headache for von der Leyen — who is expected to announce she intends to run for a second five-year term as head of the Commission — and her climate commissioner, Wopke Hoekstra, also from the EPP. Their conservative group has grown hostile to new climate regulation, arguing it puts a ruinous burden on business and rural communities and fuels the ascent of far-right parties across the Continent.

Yet under EU climate legislation passed in 2021, the Commission is legally obliged to propose a new 2040 climate goal within six months of a U.N. stocktake of international climate action, which began on December 2 and was finalized on December 13. Awkwardly, those dates oblige the executive to release the new goal either four days before or after the next EU election, which takes place June 6-9. The Commission would not say which of those dates it considered binding.

The disagreement between von der Leyen and MEPs in her political family is the culmination of a long campaign by the latter, led by group leader Manfred Weber, over the EU’s direction on the Green Deal, seen as von der Leyen’s legacy project. Weber’s lawmakers have been pressuring the EU executive to trim the green agenda and inject more pro-business realism into it, ever since he called for a “moratorium” on new green laws in 2022.

In some ways, the Commission’s approach to the 2040 plan appears to acknowledge those concerns. Instead of actually proposing new legislation — which some interpret the climate law as mandating — the EU executive will issue a weaker “communication” that lays out three options for an EU emissions-cut target and backs the 90 percent choice.

Setting that into law will be the job of the next executive, which takes office later this year. The Commission declined to comment on the EPP’s discontent.

One MEP who attended the EPP meeting claimed — without providing evidence — that a majority of the group’s lawmakers wanted the 2040 climate target to be presented after the EU election so anti-EU forces can’t seize on it to bash Europe. 

“If those are to be presented in the course of the next weeks, that might make some people in our political family a bit more nervous,” the lawmaker said. “Even if you know there are some rational explanations behind [it], populists will not listen to them. [They] will just present this as [an] additional burden for the farmers, and even if there are counterarguments, once populists scream this it’s harder to justify.”

On Thursday farmers protested aggressively outside the Parliament, lighting bonfires, toppling a statue and shouting at the heavily armed police who erected a secure perimeter around the institution. 

German conservative MEP Peter Jahr, who is also a farmer, said he and other colleagues questioned the need for a 2040 target at all. 

“The political question is, if we are on the right track, do we need a goal [in] between?” he told POLITICO, referencing the EU’s existing trajectory toward its legal mandate to hit climate neutrality by 2050.

Commission officials have been telling reporters that the 90 percent goal represents only a small increase beyond what current policies will achieve anyway. A draft analysis from Commission experts says 88 percent would be reached through an “extension” of these settings; if that was the case, Jahr said, “then we should be happy.”

But Simone Tagliapietra, a senior fellow at the Bruegel think tank, said the Commission’s “rosy” predictions relied on “strong new EU actions — namely on EU green funding and on energy and climate governance — to ensure implementation at the national level.”

The discontent is not restricted to the EPP. Czech MEPs from the populist ANO 2011 party of former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš sent a letter to the Commission this week urging Brussels to “avoid proposing any significant new targets or legislation, including those relating to the EU’s planned climate target for 2040.”

“Now even on climate, the EPP is becoming unreliable,” said Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Greens MEP. “That’s not a very good sign of course for after the elections. In the end, I trust that credible forces will keep course. I read this as campaign nervousness.”

Ketrin Jochecová contributed reporting.

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