Europe Can’t Decarbonize Without Democracy

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen claims to represent the “spirit of Greta,” yet corporate lobbyists have more influence over Europe’s Green Deal than ordinary citizens do. The green transition ought to be controlled by the social majority, so it serves all our needs — not just the businesses who hold sway in Brussels.

EU Commissioner for European Green Deal - First Vice President and Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans (L), the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (C) and the Swedish environmental activist on climate change Greta Thunberg (R) attend the weekly meeting of the European Union Commission in the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarters on March 4, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse / Getty

Following a decade of severe crisis and stagnation, the European Union is set to embark on an ambitious reform program to “rediscover [its] unity and inner strength.” Such is the promise made by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in the political guidelines for her five-year mandate, entitled “A Union that strives for more.”

Von der Leyen’s vision statement contains key pledges to address the sources of discontent rising across the continent. “I want Europe to strive for more in nurturing, protecting, and strengthening our democracy,” von der Leyen sets out, calling for a Conference on the Future of Europe that promises citizens a chance to “have their say” on the direction of the EU’s democratic reform. “I want Europe to strive for more by being the first climate-neutral continent,” von der Leyen writes, pledging to deliver a European Green Deal and a “just transition for all” away from fossil fuels.

Yet within this framework, the question of democracy and the challenge of a changing climate — the Conference and the Green Deal, respectively — are posed as entirely separate. To be sure, the Commission has promised a “European Climate Pact,” which proposes to convene “local communities, civil society, industry, and schools” to “commit to a set of pledges to bring about a change in behavior.” But the Commission’s Green Deal plan makes no reference to democracy; indeed, the word does not appear anywhere in its twenty-four-page communication. On the contrary, the Green Deal is set to deepen the EU’s democratic deficit, even as it drives the decarbonization of its economy.

Over the past two decades, a growing literature has examined the relationship between democracy and climate action. Several studies have documented a link between democratic institutions and efforts to mitigate environmental breakdown, suggesting that even in these troubled times, democracies remain the best political systems to address humanity’s most pressing challenge. The fact that the European Commission has pledged a Green Deal in the wake of a “green wave” — in which Europe’s green parties rode the “Greta effect” to a strong showing in the 2019 European elections — is strong evidence of this democratic response mechanism.

But the causal arrow does not necessarily run in reverse. Climate action can either enhance democracy or constrain it; drive participation or restrict it; socialize ownership or consolidate it; expand the spaces of common ownership or enclose them. In the Green Deal, the EU is pioneering a model of what we call decarbonization without democracy, in which the green transition may even enflame Europe’s massive imbalance of power and wealth — in the process paving the way for a denialist backlash.

Green Dealing in Brussels

“Decarbonization without democracy” refers both to the process of designing the Green Deal and its product. The policy — its core features and the directions for its implementation — was cooked up by the European Commission, the executive body of unelected officials at the helm of the EU. Defenders of the Union’s institutional design will point to European Parliament’s leverage over the Commission above them; the Parliament has the power to adopt, reject, and amend key parts of the legislation.

Yet the Green Deal originates in the backrooms of Brussels, out of sight and out of reach of Europe’s citizens, in spaces where even the Commission admits that oil and gas interests exert exceptional influence by spending millions of euros on lobbying each year. This suggests that the EU does not view the Green Deal as a collective project or a driver of political transformation. Rather, it sees it as a technocratic intervention to excise carbon from Europe’s economy.

In other words, the Green Deal has been designed from within the EU’s democratic deficit. Public participation has been restricted to “consultations,” with little bearing on the design of the overall legislation. Compare this with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, from which the current EU legislation steals so much of its legitimacy. That New Deal introduced new institutions like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), aimed at facilitating “the active daily participation of the people themselves.” The ambition of the Green Deal, by contrast, is to demobilize them — to put an end to all the marching, to get the children back in school and the rebels off the streets.

The structure of the Green Deal — and in particular, the Sustainable European Investment Plan, which is supposed to power the green transition — reflects this democratic deficit. Its stated aim is to “mobilize” €1 trillion over the next ten years for strategic investments to shift Europe’s economy away from fossil fuels. By “mobilization,” however, the EU means that it will use public money to guarantee private investments, “de-risking” them in an effort to seduce capital to participate in the decarbonization process. In other words, the Green Deal is a privatization scheme: it seeks to enclose the opportunities afforded by the green transition — to rebuild Europe’s infrastructure, to create new sources of renewable energy, to develop technologies that can drive decarbonization — in service of private capital accumulation, rather than exploiting them to expand public ownership and democratic control.

Here again, the EU’s plan appears as an affront to the original New Deal, framed as it was against the “concentration of private power.” And it appears equally at odds with the proposals for a Green New Deal that take direct inspiration from Roosevelt’s agenda. If the legislation introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez consistently emphasizes the rights of the “public” against the profit motive of the private sector — in the workplace as in housing markets and hospitals — the Green Deal is silent on such questions of distribution, ownership, and social protections.

Indeed, the silences of the Green Deal reveal far more than they obscure. While pledging to deliver “deeply transformative policies,” the Green Deal is largely silent on the question of austerity and the Stability and Growth Pact that enforces it, strangling investment across the bloc and constraining member-states’ ability to invest in infrastructure, social services, and employment. EU leaders have long sought to distract the public from the architecture of austerity: they proclaim the end of the crisis and insist on the health of the Union. But the numbers tell a different story: youth unemployment remains at a staggering 33 percent, 32 percent, and 27 percent in Greece, Spain, and Italy, respectively. The depth and duration of economic stagnation in these eurozone countries is mind-boggling. Italy’s economic output has not risen in over two decades; living standards for millions of Italians, meanwhile, have declined. “Transformation” in Europe’s Southern member-states is not a slogan — it’s an emergency.

Decarbonization Against Democracy?

The quiet affirmation of austerity in the Green Deal is perhaps the clearest evidence of its disconnect with democracy. Most obvious is the formal dimension of this disconnect: the Stability and Growth Pact directly limits the expression of popular sovereignty by dictating the terms of member-states’ social policies. The European Commission suggests that “evaluations are underway” to revise the guidelines for what’s called “state aid” — Commission-speak for government support — in order to facilitate a rapid transition to climate neutrality. But even here, the goal is to ensure a “level-playing field in the internal market,” not to make room for citizens to address the social crisis in which they are drowning. In other words, the Green Deal serves the market itself — not the workers who create it, toil in it, benefit from it, or get screwed by it.

Here, we see the deeper sense in which the Green Deal embodies “decarbonization without democracy” — its silence on the social dimension. Roughly 140 million people in the EU are currently at risk of poverty; according to the Commission’s own estimates, one in three people inside the EU cannot “cope with unexpected financial expenses.” These statistics are inseparable from the green transition, both in terms of energy production — 50 million people in the EU cannot afford to heat their homes — as well as in terms of economic justice. Heed the call of the gilets jaunes: communities already shut out from economic opportunity cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of climate mitigation.

The Green Deal comes with a “Just Transition Mechanism,” by which the EU will invest €7.5 billion over seven years to ensure that it leaves “no one behind.” Behind what? We do not know. The money — a paltry sum compared to the trillions of euros with which the EU bailed out its French and German banks — is intended for “regions and sectors that are most affected by the transition,” coal-dependent, mining-heavy places that might buck at the prospect of climate neutrality. But as economist Daniela Gabor recently noted, the money is unlikely to trickle down to the workers themselves; “clever local elites,” instead, are likely to “funnel transition money to their businesses.” The burning question is not who will get left behind in Europe’s green economy, but who won’t.

Such criticisms do not imply that the EU will necessarily be unsuccessful in its attempt to reach climate neutrality by 2050. For our part, we think there is no chance: the size of the investment — by the most generous estimate, €1 trillion over the next ten years — is wildly insufficient to strip all that carbon from the European economy, even by the Commission’s own estimates. And that’s assuming everything goes to plan. But the Green Deal may at least succeed in cutting large amounts of greenhouse emissions.

On March 4, the EU unveiled its draft climate law, which will allow it to set binding short-term targets — with or without the support of its member-state governments. The legislative design of the climate law, however, tells it all: the leaders of the EU simply cannot imagine a bargain that would both drive rapid decarbonization and engender deep democratic support from across the bloc. Instead, they view the concentration of power in the EU’s unelected executive as the only route to successful decarbonization. Member-states may argue that this is not “decarbonization without democracy,” but rather decarbonization against democracy. And they may, in fact, be right.

The danger of the Green Deal, then, is not only that it lacks the speed, size, and ambition to deliver on its promises. By remaining silent on the social dimension of the green transition, the EU may create the conditions for a backlash from denialist forces across the continent — from Matteo Salvini’s Lega to the Alternative für Deutschland — who can present the Green Deal as the perfect illustration of a trade-off between democracy and decarbonization. The gilets jaunes movement has made its position quite clear: no climate justice, no peace. The EU ignores this lesson at its own peril.

Greta and the Green Deal

None of these deficiencies have prevented the EU’s leaders from presenting their Green Deal as an expression of the youth-led climate movement. In the last year alone, the EU has welcomed Greta Thunberg not once, not twice, but three times to address — and dress down — an audience of public servants. “Only one year ago, no one would have imagined that millions would take to the streets for climate,” von der Leyen insisted in her December speech to the European Parliament. “Our European Green Deal is for them.”

The goal here, as we have argued elsewhere, is to co-opt the energy of the movement while stripping it of its substance. For “decarbonization without democracy” to work, the EU must be able to convince its citizens that it has everything under control — and that climate strikes are no longer necessary. It is no coincidence that the Commission’s proposal employs the same vocabulary as the activists themselves, from the “just transition” (albeit one that has little to do with climate justice) to the “green deal” (albeit one with little to do with the New Deal). The rhetorical sleight has paid off. Behold the headlines: Vox, Mother Jones, Forbes, The Hill, and World Economic Forumall of them amazed that the EU has “its own Green New Deal.” At least in American eyes, the co-optation is complete.

Fortunately, climate activists in Europe are not so easily fooled. Addressing the European Parliament this month, Greta Thunberg herself condemned the Green Deal as “surrender” to environmental breakdown. “Such a law sends a strong signal that real sufficient action is taking place when in fact it is not. The hard truth is that neither the awareness not politics needed are in sight,” Thunberg said. But the blame lies partly with the movement itself. Repeating the scientific facts — as Thunberg is wont to do — might expand awareness of the crisis at hand, but it does little to shape our political response. Much of this activism is phrased in purely negative terms. Fridays for Future, for example, describes itself as a movement to “protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis.” Rarely posed is the question of what kind of action it demands, and more importantly, for whom. If climate mitigation is “beyond politics,” as Extinction Rebellion insists, who can blame the European Commission for carving democracy out of its path to decarbonization?

To confront the Green Deal — and to reclaim the green transition as a democratic project — we need a much bolder strategy than plain “resistance.” Rather, we need to advance a positive project of our own, organizing communities to envision their own “just transition,” mobilizing them behind that shared vision, and ripping open channels of democratic accountability that the Commission would rather sew shut. In a word, we need a Green New Deal for Europe, not a European “Green Deal.”

Organized assemblies are indispensable to this strategy. Across Europe’s climate movement, the demand for sovereign assemblies of citizens has become a key rallying cry — and for good reason: they are powerful pedagogical tools, they help build consensus, and they ensure durable public support for the decisions they make. In particular, climate assemblies promise to generate a set of concrete and legitimate demands for the movement at large, shifting away from the reactive mode of activism that paved the way to the Green Deal toward a programmatic mode that can counter it. By training organizers, and sharing know-how, best practices, and strategies, climate activists can entrench this approach as a new modus operandi of the broader climate movement.

But assemblies alone cannot fill Europe’s democratic deficit — not least because, without a change to the EU treaty system, they carry no legal authority. Absent treaty changes, a European climate assembly is little more than an informal gathering; politicians can heed its demands or bury them, while stealing legitimacy from their mere existence. More fundamentally, a lack of legal mandate would deprive these parallel assemblies of their ability to engage a broad and representative demographic. Workers, the disabled, parents, the poor: so many people may struggle to participate for lack of time, resources, or ability. Self-organized assemblies therefore run the risk of excluding the voices of the marginalized — the very people whose needs must be at the forefront of a just transition. A truly emancipatory response to the climate and environmental crises is not the product of participatory democracy; it is a necessary precondition.

The missing piece in Europe’s climate movement, then, is politics. The shift toward a programmatic mode of activism is not only about developing policy proposals; it is also about developing a political strategy to implement them. This process does not begin in Brussels, but in the communities themselves. Last year, the municipality of Barcelona announced a climate emergency and a robust policy response that married climate and environmental concerns with questions of social justice. Our campaign is now working with representatives from Barcelona en Comú to advocate a Green New Deal for Barcelona, to which similar municipal movements could connect in a Green Solidarity Network. Such a project would not only reclaim the banner of green politics from the Commission; the existence of an actual Green New Deal in Europe would also expose its rhetorical co-optation of the just transition.

The strands of local climate politics, however, must then scale up to the European level. We cannot simply cede the Green Deal to the lobbyists; politics must enter the backrooms in Brussels. But it will not do so by knocking on the door or marching in the streets outside. On the contrary, a politicized climate movement must target the strategic roadblocks to a just transition. One such roadblock is the so-called black zero — EU member-states obsession with balanced government budget with no new borrowing. If the movement did not merely call for climate “action,” but a break with the economic orthodoxy constraining it, they could unlock significantly more money for the just transition. That could disarm opposition from Polish miners, the French gilets jaunes, and other groups today rightfully suspicious of the climate agenda. It could open the door to a wholesale transformation of Europe’s financing architecture, creating the fiscal space for EU countries to mount their own responses to the social and ecological crises.

A politicized climate movement can make a similar strategic intervention in partnership with labor. Using productivity gains to reduce the working week rather than to make more useless shit would have obvious environmental benefits; by reducing material throughput and infrastructure use, it would relieve pressures on natural systems and reduce aggregate energy demand, significantly cutting per capita emissions. Here again, a strategic partnership between climate activists and communities across Europe that have not seen living standards rise in a generation would shift the politics of the Green Deal away from market reification and toward public service: that is, it would mean decarbonization with democracy.

Fork in the Road

We seem to return — over and over and over again — to the fork in Rosa Luxemburg’s road: socialism this way, barbarism that. “The capitalist social system has run its course; its dissolution is now only a question of time,” wrote Karl Kautsky (from whom Luxemburg would later borrow the phrase) in 1909. “The substitution of a new social order for the existing one is no longer simply desirable; it has become inevitable.”

Alas, a century later, the climate crisis is bringing us to that same fork. An existential threat looms on the near horizon: we either mobilize collectively to stop it — putting an end to fossil fuel production and the profit motive that keeps us addicted — or we make way for the violence, dispossession, and death that two degrees of global heating will deliver. “Our choices,” write Thea Riofrancos, Robert Shaw, and Will Speck, “are eco-socialism or barbarism.” In the parlance of the climate movement, the alternative is either system change or climate change.

Yet the EU Green Deal suggests that it might be just as possible to forestall Luxemburg’s dilemma. As we have learned — over and over and over again — capital is creative. If some will cast its demise as “inevitable,” given the unsustainability of its current configuration, its managers nonetheless find increasingly clever ways to avoid it. There can be no doubt that Europe’s political economic system is driving unprecedented environmental destruction. But the Green Deal forces us to consider: will our rulers be able to avert climate change while staving off system change?

Decarbonization will reshape the economy in so many fundamental ways — disposing of old industries, making way for new ones, and producing a slew of knock-on effects that are impossible to predict. But it is foolish to assume that these rapid changes will also reshape the distribution of winners and losers, of opportunities, of voice or power. Like industrial revolutions past, it may well consolidate that power for a few, while putting millions of people out of jobs made redundant — and condemning millions more to suffer the consequences of ecological destruction at the margins of society.

For a new system to emerge — for us to walk down the road toward eco-socialism — we need to move beyond an obsession with climate targets and degrees Celsius to develop a real climate politics, one that grapples with the green transition as a field of conflict in which capital holds a strong upper hand, backed up by powerful institutions like the EU. Once we understand the green transition in this way, democracy can return as the guiding principle of the climate movement: only an organized mobilization of working communities can secure their gains from the green transition, and only their active participation can ensure it stays that way.

One thing is clear: there is nothing neutral about climate neutrality. Decarbonization is what we make it.