European Union leaders clashed at the start of a summit yesterday over the bloc’s plans to tackle climate change, arguing over how to pay for the green transition and what role nuclear power should have.
Brussels’ new leadership, under European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, wants member states to commit to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.
However, at least three coal-hungry countries in the east of the bloc are holding out for a more detailed promise of funding for their energy transition.
Opposition to the 2050 target from eastern members such as the Czech Republic and Poland will feed into what is expected to be a long, bitter summit debate about climate change and the long-term EU budget.
Von der Leyen’s “European Green Deal” includes a plan to mobilise €100bn to help countries with the move towards carbon neutrality, but critics say this is not enough.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who wants more detailed assurances about funding, said the Czech republic alone would need €30-40bn ($27-$36bn) to achieve carbon neutrality, while Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda estimated the transition would cost two-thirds of his country’s GDP.
Babis also wants the summit conclusions to explicitly mention nuclear power – the latest draft seen by AFP simply acknowledges member states’ right to “decide on their energy mix and to choose the most appropriate technologies”.
And he took aim at countries like Austria and Luxembourg for refusing to agree to the EU endorsing nuclear energy as green.
“Nuclear energy is clean energy without emissions. I don’t know why countries have a problem with this,” Babis said as he arrived, after earlier accusing Austria of hypocrisy over its power supplies. “This morning at a quarter to eight, Austrians consumed 23% of Czech electricity, Slovakia 30%. If we hadn’t supplied Austria with energy, a quarter of them wouldn’t even make coffee.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country gets more than two-thirds of its electricity from nuclear, backed the Czechs, saying that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had agreed atomic power should play a role.
“For countries that have to get away from using coal, it’s obvious they will not be able to move to all renewables overnight,” Macron said.
And there was more backing from Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who insisted that “without nuclear energy there is no carbon-neutral European economy”.
But Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel was adamant he would not agree to EU money being used to set up nuclear plants.
“We are convinced that nuclear energy is neither sustainable nor safe, and especially when it comes to waste, we still do not know what we should do,” he said.
The red-carpet bickering set the stage for a first summit for the new EU Council President Charles Michel that is more likely to be a baptism of fire than a honeymoon.
The day began with a dramatic protest by activists from environmental group Greenpeace who climbed the front wall of the Europa Building summit venue before the leaders arrived and unfurled a “Climate Emergency” banner.
Polish and Czech sources predicted that the fight could take the summit into the early hours of morning today without an agreement.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki insisted the EU must take into account the different “starting point” of eastern European countries like his which are heavily dependent on coal and manufacturing.
European officials acknowledge that, with their summit coinciding with the COP25 global climate conference in Madrid, failure to agree would be embarrassing.
“It’s going to be a massive brawl,” one diplomat warned.
The EU’s mammoth 2021-2027 multi-year financial framework (MFF) is another indigestible morsel on yesterday’s summit menu.
The 27 – departing member Britain is not attending the summit – will discuss the budget over dinner, separately from the climate, but the hold-outs want a budget commitment to transition funding.
Ahead of the summit, Michel toured European capitals trying to build consensus on climate and the budget, but he admits it will be difficult.
Finland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has proposed a seven-year budget based on national contributions amounting to €1.087tn.
This is equivalent to 1.07% of Europe’s total GDP, but less than the 1.114% requested by the commission and or the 1.3% sought by the EU parliament.
A so-called frugal five – Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden – oppose allowing EU spending to swell.
But Finland’s proposed cuts would eat into plans for the green transition, a border force, the digital economy and defence – dear to France.
Once their own disputes are resolved – or pushed off down the road – the EU leaders will turn again to Brexit.
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