This summer — with record heat waves crashing over Europe — climate activists appeared to find an unlikely champion: the conservative German politician Ursula von der Leyen.
Shortly before she was confirmed as the next president of the European Commission, the former defense minister pledged to introduce a “European Green Deal” within 100 days of taking office, laying out a holistic vision for a just transition that will aim to cut carbon emissions and reverse the planet’s ecological breakdown, while ensuring social justice.
Claudia Kemfert, a leading climate researcher in Berlin, called the proposals “groundbreaking.” Forbes declared that those calling for a Green New Deal on the other side of the Atlantic “have all been beat by a conservative German politician.”
Alas, the European Union — in its institutional structure, as in its political process — does not permit a holistic approach. Von der Leyen’s Green Deal was doomed from the start.
The European Commission, which originates EU policy, splits and chops proposals and distributes them among siloed teams of experts, who then draft the legislation. Social policy is divorced from trade policy, just like finance is divorced from greenhouse gas reduction targets. In the best case, ambitious proposals end up in the hands of officials who are sympathetic to the cause. In the worst, they reside with commissioners who are determined to see them fail.
The Commission’s structural and political constraints are likely to produce a set of watered-down, piecemeal solutions.
Von der Leyen’s Green Deal is a case in point. Though she tapped the center-left Dutch politician Frans Timmermans as her commissioner for a “European Green Deal,” she handed the “Economy that Works for People” portfolio to Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister and the chief architect of the country’s austerity program. There’s little reason to believe the center-right politician will be eager to embrace the environmental ambition needed to see the Green Deal through.
At the commissioner hearings last week, Timmermans downplayed the split. “You can’t go it alone; you can’t achieve all this alone. Under Ursula von der Leyen’s leadership, we will work together,” he said. But sources close to him suggest that he was riled by the decision — not just because it neutered core aspects of his portfolio, but also because it signified a major power shift within the Commission.
Von der Leyen’s mission letters to Timmermans and Dombrovskis are revealing: While the Dutchman is in charge of soft issues like a new 2030 emission reduction target, zero-pollution ambition and the circular economy, Dombrovskis’ portfolio includes most of the hard, financing-related aspects of the green transition.
Dombrovskis is tasked with transforming the European Investment Bank into a climate bank. He will oversee a new financing strategy based on the issuance of green bonds. And he will coordinate the work on von der Leyen’s Sustainable Europe Investment Plan, which promises to “unlock” €1 trillion of investments over the next decade. The bread and butter of the Green Deal, then, will need to pass by Dombrovskis’ desk before it sees the light of day.
And then there’s the next Commission’s political structure. Timmermans coordinates the work of five directorates general (DGs), but most of these are led by center-right commissioners. At the same time, Dombrovskis heads no fewer than four DGs, most of them led by center-left figures.
In other words, von der Leyen ensured a political balance between the center left and the center right, while reinforcing the latter’s supervision of portfolios essential for realizing the Green Deal. Jobs, cohesion, reforms and, crucially, economy — these all fall within Dombrovskis’ remit, not Timmermans’.
Sources suggest that von der Leyen’s last-minute move to promote Dombrovskis was an attempt to seize control of the Green Deal for the center right, while ensuring that the responsibility for its success or failure remains with Timmermans, the public face of the Commission’s environmental ambitions.
Timmermans’ S&D allies in the Parliament are already voicing concerns. “We require clarification on how exactly you foresee Mr. Dombrovskis’ collaboration with other relevant commissioners in order to deliver on the ambitious and progressive cross-sectorial set of policies you have entrusted him with, including within the scope of the Green New Deal,” S&D group leader Iratxe Garcia-Perez wrote in a letter to von der Leyen.
Urgency is mounting. Even if the Commission could realize its current plans for a Green Deal, it would still be only the first step of the many that will be needed to tackle Europe’s twin crises of austerity, and climate and environmental breakdown.
The record doesn’t bode well. The Commission’s structural and political constraints are likely to produce a set of watered-down, piecemeal solutions. Meanwhile, the clock on climate and environmental breakdown keeps ticking away.
Pawel Wargan and David Adler are the coordinators of the Green New Deal for Europe and members of the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25) governing board.