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What’s in store for EU climate policy in 2024?

EU watchers are cautious regarding Hungary’s upcoming European Council presidency.
(Photo: Georges Gobet /AFP via Getty Images)
EU watchers are cautious regarding Hungary’s upcoming European Council presidency. (Photo: Georges Gobet /AFP via Getty Images)

The upcoming EU elections, a new government in Poland, and Hungary’s holding of the council presidency could shift the bloc’s climate dynamics

The recent announcement by Charles Michel, president of the European Council, that he will step down to run as a candidate in the 2024 European parliament elections is concerning some EU observers. They fear Michel’s early departure could leave the door open for Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to assert greater influence over EU decision-making, given he will hold the council presidency for six months from July.

Hungary has often been accused of being a disruptive force inside the EU, including on climate, and has also been subject to EU sanctions. Since December 2022, the EU has been withholding around €30bn in funds designated for the country over concerns related to its rule of law, show calculations by the Financial Times. Orbán’s ties to Russia have been particularly problematic for the EU since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Hungary’s continued import of Russian gas – while the rest of the EU has moved away from it – and its increased cooperation with Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom have become contentious, says Agata Łoskot-Strachota, visiting fellow at economics think-tank Bruegel.

Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris Business School – who has been vocal about Orbán’s conflict of interests in holding the council presidency – says he expects climate to become a major dividing line among member states in the coming European elections.

Furthermore, “one may expect the Hungarian presidency to downgrade climate policy during its semester,” he tells Sustainable Views.

2040 climate target

The negotiations around the EU’s 2040 climate target could prove particularly difficult under a Hungarian presidency. The current European Commission is set to announce its recommendations on a 2040 emissions reduction in early February, but it will be up to the next commission to make them legally binding.

“Hungary will hold the EU presidency at a crucial moment for negotiations on the climate target for 2040. Other member states will watch closely if the government in Budapest acts as a honest broker, as expected of the presidency, or if it links climate negotiations to the ongoing conflict over EU funds and rule of law,” says Mats Engström, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

“I am more worried about the potential to trash the EU’s reputation”

Manon Dufour, E3G

Manon Dufour, head of climate think-tank E3G’s Brussels office, agrees Hungary would be able to stall discussions on the 2040 target for some months. However, Dufour suggests the second half of 2024 is a period when Hungary can cause least damage to any climate action plans, given that no new legislative proposals will be up for debate as candidates focus on the elections.

“I am more worried about the potential to trash the EU’s reputation,” says Dufour. Hungary could, for instance, propose a weak text for next year’s COP negotiations in Azerbaijan, which are set to focus on finance, she adds.

Given that the newly formed European parliament and commission will only become operational in the last few weeks of Hungary’s council presidency, Antoine Oger, research director at the Institute for European Environmental Policy, believes that EU policy processes will not be impaired – but that Hungary could inflict long-lasting damage to Europe’s reputation.

Oger suggests Hungary’s presidency could be more influential on foreign affairs than on domestic EU issues, and says support for Ukraine is potentially the issue most likely to be thrown into disarray, with the delay of financial aid packages.

Poland’s u-turn

The return of Donald Tusk as prime minister of Poland has been unanimously viewed as good news for the EU, since the former president of the European Council is considered a close ally of Brussels. However, experts say, his new government’s progressive views on climate policy might be overshadowed by the country’s domestic issues.

“Issues related to the succession of power and the accountability of the previous ruling camp are likely to dominate in the near future, and it might have an impact on the energy and climate agenda,” comments Szymon Kardaś, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Poland is facing local elections this spring, followed by the EU elections in June and presidential elections in 2025.

Alemanno at HEC Paris Business School says while the new Polish coalition government will not obstruct EU-led climate policy, neither will it be the EU’s most proactive supporter.

ECFR’s Kardaś says at this stage it is difficult to assess the country’s stance on the EU 2040 climate target. However, on January 15, Polish deputy minister for climate and the environment Urszula Zielińska suggested to reporters in Brussels that Poland could support a 90 per cent reduction of carbon emissions by 2040 if guarantees were given on the social aspects of the transition.

EU climate commissioner Wopke Hoekstra has said he supports an emissions reduction of “at least” 90 per cent by 2040, compared with 1990, as advised by the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change in June 2023. 

As of yet, Poland’s EU priorities are not clear, adds E3G’s Dufour, but she sees Warsaw as a more constructive voice on climate action than Hungary when it takes over the EU council presidency in January 2025.

Dufour believes Poland could be a useful negotiator on industrial climate policy, including in discussions involving the greening of EU grids and the adoption of heat pumps, as the government under Tusk is eager to progress its energy transition.

Nonetheless, Poland’s energy market is still heavily dependent on coal, and in 2023 the country’s previous government filed a set of lawsuits against EU climate regulations in the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Poland could potentially negotiate the dropping of these lawsuits for other gains, such as concessions regarding its clash with the EU on Ukraine grain imports, suggests IEEP’s Oger. Poland and Ukraine have been in disagreement regarding the import of Ukrainian grain through Poland since the Black Sea has been out of bounds, with Warsaw arguing the trade damages Polish farmers.

Outstanding regulations

The majority of EU legislation related to the Green Deal was secured at the end of 2023, but a few dossiers remain outstanding. Aside from the 2040 climate target, agreement on the Net Zero Industry Act is still needed, which the current Belgian presidency will aim to finalise, says E3G’s Dufour.

IEEP’s Oger says that after February, little to no major climate decisions are expected, as politicians focus on the elections. He points at the planned regulation on pesticide reduction (known as SUR), a ban on products made using forced labour, and the confirmation of the EU’s heavily contested nature restoration law among the remaining legislative topics to be finalised by the current administration.

The future of the EU Green Deal will heavily depend on the outcomes of the elections, although experts agree that the focus should shift from legislation to implementation, which will have its own difficulties.

Łoskot-Strachota at Bruegel highlights the return of the nuclear question led by France, which has made clear its intention to prioritise nuclear as a low-carbon energy source. “Half of EU member states,” including Poland and Hungary, “have an interest in facilitating investment in and financing new nuclear power plants,” she says.

A legislative pathway to decarbonise the agriculture sector is also still missing in the EU’s framework, say both Dufour and Oger. The EU’s announced Farm to Fork strategy, which would include a legislative framework on sustainable food systems, saw little progress during the current commission’s mandate.

Overall, both Dufour and Oger remain optimistic about the EU’s progress towards net zero. Even if the centre of gravity of the European parliament’s majority were to shift to the right, they suggest that environmental policymaking could still expand, albeit under a different name.

A more conservative parliament could focus more on security and competition issues in industrial strategies, where wins on climate can still be scored, according to Dufour, who concludes that “a lot can be done under different scenarios”.

A service from the Financial Times