Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Greenwashing the Status Quo

Commentators have hailed the EU's Ursula von der Leyen as a climate visionary. But her proposed 'European green deal' falls woefully short of what's needed.

Last Tuesday, Ursula von der Leyen became the most powerful person in Brussels. 

Following a two-week charm offensive—during which the former German Defence Minister met with sceptical MEPs from across the political spectrum—the European Parliament narrowly approved her candidacy to lead the EU Commission. Von der Leyen will spend the next five years implementing her 20-page policy agenda, A Union that Strives for More.

Commentators have hailed von der Leyen as a climate visionary, if a reluctant one. Her agenda promises a “European green deal” that would invest billions of euros in an ecological transition, implement fresh regulations to curb carbon emissions, ramp up Europe’s climate targets and do more to protect biodiversity across the continent.

“I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world,” von der Leyen announced in her Strasbourg address on Tuesday. “All of us and every sector will have to contribute, from aviation to maritime transport to the way each and everyone of us travels and lives.” Pascal Canfin, a French MEP sitting in the crowd, described it as the “most important ambition” ever shown by a Commission candidate.

But Canfin sets the bar fatally low. Von der Leyen’s agenda makes a clear step forward in its rhetorical commitment to a “just transition for all.” But the policies themselves lack the strength, ambition and credibility to deliver it.

Indeed, von der Leyen’s choice of words is telling. Rather than associate with the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, she neatly excised the word ‘new’ from her “green deal.” And through this careful omission, a radical vision of economic, social, and environmental justice is transformed into familiar Brussels-speak—and a strategy to sustain its status quo.

Consider one of the most heralded proposals on the agenda: carving a climate finance bank from the European Investment Bank (EIB). At first sight, the proposal seems in line with the Keynesian premise of the Green New Deal. Through the EIB, von der Leyen promises to plough over €1 trillion into sustainable investments over the next decade.

But the proposal fails in both size and approach to confront the crises at hand.

In terms of size, the investment is plainly insufficient. The European Commission itself estimated that Europe would need to spend over €1 trillion each year on the energy transition alone. By contrast, the promise of €1 trillion spread out over 10 years is the amount of funding that the EIB would have raised in any event, following its current plans for the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI, aka the Juncker Plan), which was established in 2015. Cynically, von der Leyen is painting the old as new.

It also fails to recognise the vital role of public investment in the energy transition. Von der Leyen’s “Sustainable Europe Investment Plan” does not actually invest funds itself, but “unlocks” private finance with public guarantees. In effect, it socialises the risks of climate investment, while privatising the gains. Coupled with a commitment to respect the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact—the agreement that puts member-states in a “fiscal strait-jacket”—it is clear that von der Leyen has little intention to challenge austerity economics.

Consider, too, the proposal for a “New Circular Economy Action Plan” with a focus on sustainable resource use. At first sight, the framing appears just right: to meet the challenge of climate and environmental breakdown, Europe must move beyond its obsession with GDP growth to support a transition from material production to reproduction.

But two pages later, von der Leyen claims she wants to double-down on the growth fetish: “we must continue developing the growth finance market for the innovative companies of the future.” This is incompatible with the Green New Deal’s approach to tackling climate and environmental breakdown. You can’t grow your way out of a dying planet.

Finally, it’s worth looking at the proposal for a “European Climate Pact.” Like the other proposals, it is framed in the buzzwords of its time, promising to unite “regions, local communities, civil society, industry and schools” in action on the climate.

But von der Leyen’s proposal is a halfhearted overture to these principles. The Pact will be a non-binding pledge committing individuals and firms to ‘behavioural’ changes—not a durable participatory structure for guiding our economic transformation.

Von der Leyen’s attempts at repainting old policies in green—and the vague nature of her proposals—raise the question of her plan’s credibility. It is telling that the plan managed to get past her German party, the CDU, which has been bowing to pressure from Germany’s coal industry and resisting calls to align the European Union with the Paris Agreement targets. With friends like these, von der Leyen may be promising more than her political circumstances allow.

Since the start of our campaign for the Green New Deal for Europe, we have been clear: not all policies deserve to be called a Green New Deal. That’s why we published our 10 Pillars–a challenge to those who would co-opt our vision and dilute its promises of community empowerment, economic transformation and global justice.

Von der Leyen’s Union that Strives for More fails the test. In the crisis of climate, striving for more means courting disaster. As pioneering climate activist Bill McKibben once wrote, “Winning slowly is the same as losing.” 

Von der Leyen promises to introduce her “green deal” within 100 days of taking office. It’s not too late, then, for her to get serious about the climate and the environment. Indeed, the speed with which she adopted the language of climate activists shows that the political centre remains reactive to change.

But before the clock starts ticking, it will once again fall on the grassroots to set the tone for the debate—channeling the false progressivism of a “Union that strives for more” into a hunger for the real thing.

About the Author

David Adler is the policy director for DiEM25 and the coordinator of the Green New Deal for Europe campaign.

Pawel Wargan is the campaign coordinator for the Green New Deal for Europe, the continent’s first transnational effort to build a cross-partisan coalition for an equitable green transition.