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COVID-19 and the European Green Deal: a challenging opportunity?

Gauri Khandekar, Marco Giuli and Prof. Dr. Sven Van Kerckhoven, Vesalius College

Over the last decades, the urgency of combatting climate change has become increasingly palpable, and policies in line with the ambition to further sustainability have been implemented. Since the outset, the Von der Leyen Commission has made achieving carbon neutrality its mission, embodied in a set of policy initiatives called the European Green Deal.

With the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, support for this ambitious initiative quickly shrank. Many leaders called for hitting the pause button or discontinuing the deal, arguing that the priorities should rather be on health and economic recovery – the short-term crises – rather than on the long-term climate and sustainability crisis.

At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the importance of the ambitions stipulated in the European Green Deal. Months-long confinement and general product shortages exposed European vulnerabilities to imports, in particular from China. It became clear that local value chains might provide quicker solutions than global sourcing, at a lower environmental cost. The crisis further showcased the strategic value of the basic materials industry in Europe.

Previous crises, such as the 2008 financial crisis, have demonstrated that in difficult times, it is hard to mobilize additional public finances for environmental investments or to attach ‘green’ conditions to rescue and recovery packages. This time, the European Commission has proposed the ‘Next Generation EU’ package, whereby a significant part (25%) of the sizable recovery fund is earmarked for climate action, with the additional requirement that all funds should be used in a manner that respects the ‘do no harm’ principle. This means that recovery projects should definitely not result in an increase of emissions.

The incorporation of this principle and a significant support for ‘green’ recovery is a positive turn and clearly breaks with the ‘tradition’ of focusing solely on economic recovery. However, in order to have a long-term impact, a European strategy should consist of long-term plans and funding. As private investments might fall significantly due to the economic impact of COVID-19, the hope is that public funding along the lines laid out before might still push the European Union (EU) to achieve its objectives.

It is now up to the EU to continue standing strong in pushing its ambitions forward. With the current resurgence in infection numbers and a second wave of lockdowns not unimaginable, the pressure on the EU and its Member States to support their economies will be massive. One can only hope that this pressure can be channeled in a concerted way, after the divergent policy decisions taken by EU Member States at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. Cooperation and an eye to the future are paramount to ensure that the current pandemic can be translated into an opportunity for Europe, its economy, its businesses and its people in the long run.

About the authors

Marco Giuli, doctoral researcher, Institute of European Studies

Marco Giuli has been a doctoral researcher at the Institute of European Studies since 2019. Marco is also an Associate Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank where he served between 2015 and 2019 as a Policy Analyst and lead of the EPC Climate and Energy Platform, and an Associate Researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome. His research focuses on the geopolitics of the energy transition, the external dimension of EU energy policy, industrial decarbonization, climate mainstreaming in EU energy policy and the EU budget and energy poverty.

Gauri Khandekar, project and doctoral researcher, Institute of European Studies

Gauri Khandekar's research focuses on the low-carbon climate transition, and more specifically on the decarbonization of energy intensive industries, low-carbon innovation diffusion and EU/international climate governance.

Prof. Dr. Sven Van Kerckhoven, Vice-Dean for Education, Vesalius College

Prof. Dr. Sven Van Kerckhoven is Vice-Dean for Education and Associate Professor of Business and Economics at Vesalius College and the Institute for European Studies. As a political economist, his research interests are in the field of global economic governance with a focus on international institutions, such as the G20, EU, IMF and WTO.