European notebook: The bars in Brussels are closing again

A second wave of Covid threaten's Europe's de facto capital, but not before MEPs push through the EU commissioner's ambitious climate law.

(Stephen Rae is the former Group Chief Editor of INM, Ireland’s largest online and print media group. He serves on the board of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and was previously on the board of the World Editors Forum. He was appointed by the European Commission to its High Level Expert Group on Online Disinformation.)

DUBLIN (Callaway Climate Insights) — The bars in Brussels are closing today. The pandemic sickness levels are spiking again in the Belgian and de facto European capital.

At least the MEPs, assorted Eurocrats and their officials had the opportunity for one final drink (or two) in the cafes on Place du Luxembourg before they head home for the weekend (Thursday is Friday in Brussels). They will return to a far less joyous city Monday.

At least they have something to celebrate. All the action was in the European Parliament on Wednesday where MEPs finally voted on Ursula von der Leyen’s climate law. And it was a win for a coalition of Green, left-wing and assorted center parties who voted in favor of a 60% greenhouse gas emissions cut by 2030. The majority of MEPs rallied around the 60% goal championed by Pascal Canfin’s influential environment committee (as reported by CCI last month).

Climate Commissioner Frans Timmermans is driving the climate law on behalf of von der Leyen and is doing a pretty good job of it. Indeed, the Dutchman was filling in for von der Leyen chairing the College of Commissioners this week as the commission president self-isolated after being in proximity to someone who tested positive for Covid-19. She is not the only one in quarantine; it’s reported that 179 Commission staff have tested positive for the virus.

Back in parliament, you could be forgiven for thinking the EU has found a new energy source. Timmermans was on fire as he delivered a bravura address in the cavernous chamber. One MEP joked with CCI that “if von der Leyen could harness the Dutchman’s energy, she could power in one stroke all of Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Denmark.”

The climate commissioner, dressed in trademark waistcoat and jacket, implored MEPs to back the fundamental energy changes needed to deliver climate neutrality by 2050. Some of the changes, including shutting coal plants, will be hard to deliver in the bloc’s east, particularly Poland.

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“Let me be clear, this is going to be bloody hard to do. But it can be done. The sooner we start, the lower the cost,” Timmermans boomed. “And just imagine the costs of inaction, of horrible storms like in Limone (in Italy, where parts of a town were washed away in torrential rain last week) or another monthly Gota Fria (the annual return of winter on Spain’s Costas). Those costs are huge.”

Jytte Guteland, the Swedish Socialist MEP who guided the climate law through the Parliament, remarked, “This is a very strong mandate, the Parliament wants us to go into negotiations [with the European Council of Member State leaders] with 60% for 2030.”

But it still has to get through the European Council, which represents the member states. EU countries are still divided over whether they can back a 55% cut, which is lower than the 60% the parliament have voted through.

This week’s victory comes just a week before EU leaders are due to have a first discussion of the climate target and ahead of an Environment Council on Oct. 23, when the climate law is on the agenda. The ones to watch are Poland and the Czech Republic.

. . . . 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sailed to victory with an overwhelming parliamentary majority last year. Since then it has all been rapidly downhill.

Burdened with an adversarial mad-cap adviser (Dominic Cummings) who is seen as the real prime minister, Johnson has struggled to do a negotiated deal with Europe to deliver Brexit. Relations between the UK and the EU’s principal Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, are positively fraught right now. Moreover, Johnson’s plan to do a quick trade deal with the U.S. has been torpedoed by Democratic U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, who does not like his signaled plan to undermine the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.

Johnson, too, is haunted by London’s reputation as the welcoming home for Russia’s laundered dirty money. Indeed, the British establishment was aghast during the summer when Johnson had the media owner Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a KGB officer, made a Lord of the realm.

It is odd then that Johnson now has been touting China as a champion of, well, the climate!

Just last week Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country (the world's top polluter) aims to become carbon neutral before 2060. The pledge increases the prospect that the COP26 climate summit next November in Glasgow will be a success — which will be a good photo opp for Johnson on the world stage for his “Global Britain” strategy.

Nick Mabey, CEO of think tank E3G, claims a successful summit would allow Johnson to demonstrate “that Britain has not destroyed all of its geopolitical influence through Brexit.”

Of course, any port in a storm and Johnson is happy to take advantage of the momentum provided by Xi. “What a fantastic thing it is,” he told a U.N. roundtable a few days after China’s move.

Well, indeed. But there is a long way to go between now and November as many in his own party will observe.

Above, a bar in Brussels. Photo: Miguel Discart/flickr.