At the beginning of March, the European Commission released a white paper to launch discussions on the future of Europe and how it can move forward collectively. It is a critical time for the European Union, but the temptation to hold tight must be resisted. Europe is at its best when it creates the conditions for its people to succeed and it is that which will give it gravity. Enabling a transition to a clean energy economy would do just that.
In the wake of the Second World War and as the European project took its first tentative steps, its founding fathers asked for “a revolution so far reaching that it undoubtedly makes any other revolution unnecessary.” It was a grand vision built on cooperation and mutual benefit that we reached out for and has transformed into a lasting peace, one that we now take largely for granted.
But Europe as an institution has become far more complex. Combining as it does both the European Level and member states, who does what is often unclear; the most recent polling by the European Commission shows that only 36% of people have trust in the EU, a full 21 percentage points lower than in 2007. Europeans indicate that immigration, terrorism and a slow economy are their primary concerns, but significant numbers doubt that Europe is the solution, with reactionary, populist politics trending up in many states.
It won’t be getting any easier. The EC white paper specifically highlights concerns over the uneven distribution of Europe’s recovery from the economic crisis, and that the future of Europe’s most educated age group ever could be condemned by generational inequality, compounded by the impacts of technology and automation on jobs and industry.
If the EU responds by holding tight and micro-managing - telling people what to do - they will likely drive people further away. They must define a vision that will inspire and make a compelling case for the European project, and must lead by creating an environment in which their constituents can make that vision a reality.
I believe that can be achieved by supporting energy transition and clean technologies. Doing so could reinvigorate Europe’s economies and support innovation. Energy transition will mean investment in sustainable infrastructure, local production capacity and new solutions, and will lead to the creation of entirely new job types and more equitable distribution of opportunities.
As a model, the European institutions should look at the Paris Climate Agreement ratified by the EU in September last year. After decades of stop-start negotiations, an agreement was finally reached by employing a different approach to climate diplomacy, characterised by nationally determined contributions instead of legally binding commitments - a bottom-up approach that allows for each country to figure out how best to reach their commitment.
Europe and its institutions can serve as an enabler for these sorts of initiatives, and efforts have already been made; Horizon 2020, the EU commitment to Mission Innovation, seeks to invest EUR 80 billion in clean energy R&D investment from 2014-2020. So too the European Investment Bank, with whom I recently spoke regarding the World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, provides fully 25% of its funding to climate-related projects in the EU. There are real opportunities to build on, in particular given that European firms hold 40% of the world’s patents for renewable energy technologies.
Last week, I was in Germany at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue which is facilitating connections between people and companies involved in these sorts of projects. Germany’s government and citizenry, perhaps more so than anywhere else, is embracing the clean energy transition and creating an environment where new ideas are surfacing to meet local needs and conditions, and while the transition does have its challenges, they are already seeing the benefits.
The EU is committed to providing value to its people. What they must consider is their role in making that happen. Europe has been at its best when it creates an enabling environment for its constituents; free movement, lasting peace and the Erasmus student exchange programmes are the accomplishments thought of most fondly by Europeans. All three offer a vision, the conditions in which to succeed, and then allow people, companies and institutions to make the most of the opportunities afforded to them. Focusing on this, Europe can flourish. And what can be more visionary than providing the means to transition to a clean and vibrant economy.
Image: © European Flag // Rock Cohen via Flickr