Copenhagen debacle brings home limits of EU's influence


EUROPEAN DIARY:The EU and its member states, prime players in the 1997 Kyoto pact, now find themselves consigned to the wings

AS SPAIN assumed the EU’s rotating presidency on New Year’s Day, prime minister José Luis Zapatero said the union must work to assert itself in the global arena as it deals with dominant powers such as the US and China.

This familiar refrain is all too apposite in the wake of the flimsy climate change accord that emerged from the Copenhagen debacle.

The outcome of the UN talks stands as a vivid exemplar of the EU’s failure to achieve on the world stage the influence it craves. Although European Commission president José Manuel Barroso arrived in the Danish capital determined to assume a pre-eminent leadership role in the talks, he wasn’t even in the room when US President Barack Obama pulled together a non-binding deal with the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa. In fact no Europeans were present at all. The EU and its member states, prime players in the 1997 Kyoto pact, found themselves consigned to the wings with hardly any of their core objectives embraced in the final package.

The union’s apparent impotence in this crucial debate underlines the enormity and complexity of the task facing Herman Van Rompuy, whose term as president of the European Council formally started five days ago, and Catherine Ashton, the union’s new foreign policy chief.

Given the inexorable rise of the major developing economies and the determination of the US to maintain its dominance over world affairs, their job is to ensure the EU’s voice is heard above the din on big issues such as climate change.

The manoeuvrings at Copenhagen, which suggest that the EU’s rank in the global pecking order is far below where its leaders would like it to be, illustrate just how difficult that task will be.

In its scope and finer detail, the Copenhagen pact falls well short of what the EU set out to achieve. Remember, the union went into the talks arguing that the world at large should pay developing countries €100 billion per annum by 2020 to curb emissions and deal with impact of climate change. Copenhagen brought forward an offer of $100 billion (€70 billion) per year, far below the EU target.

Further evidence of the union’s failure to exercise leverage in the talks was seen in its failure to extract deeper emission-cutting targets from its global partners. The EU went into the talks with a conditional offer to increase its own target to 30 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020 from 20 per cent – if other powers stepped forward with comparable efforts.

They didn’t, suggesting moral pressure from Europe is less powerful than anticipated.

While Copenhagen fell short of a myriad of other EU targets, the net point is clear.

“This accord is better than no accord,” Barroso ruefully said when the deed was done. “This was a positive step but clearly below our ambition.”

Sweden, Spain’s predecessor in the EU presidency, went further, its environment minister Andreas Carlgren saying the summit was nothing short of a “disaster”.

As business resumes this week in ice-clad Brussels, it is difficult to understate the extent to which this rings true.

Its environmental policy in place since the 1987 Single European Act and advanced on several occasions since then, the EU entered Copenhagen as a global player of rank in the race to counter climate change.

Whereas the US never adopted Kyoto, for example, EU members are likely to meet their commitments under the protocol.

The EU has also led the way in global terms with the creation in 2005 of its Emissions Trading Scheme, a market which determines a price for carbon and aims to discourage excessive production of harmful emissions by industrial groups.

Even though EU members remain divided over their own individual contributions to climate change programmes in the years to 2020, expectations were high in advance of the UN summit. Amid scenes of considerable disarray, hopes of a far-reaching deal were dashed.

At a meeting in Seville later this month, EU environment ministers will attempt to pick up the pieces by seeking to plot a way towards a stronger global agreement.

It is an engagement that may well be tempered by a new sense of realism in respect of the Union’s true power (or lack thereof).

In the weeks before Copenhagen, Barroso handpicked Danish climate minister Connie Hedegaard for a new “climate action” portfolio in his incoming commission.

This grand gesture, designed to put a recognisable face on the commission’s own ambitious work in this area, now looks dismally premature.

Hedegaard had to step aside as chair of the UN talks midway through after she was criticised by African countries for favouring wealthier states.

At the summit’s concluding press conference UN climate chief Yvo de Boer expressed the hope that she was “at home, on the couch, with a bucket of popcorn” after a frenetic fortnight. Not quite the image Barroso had in mind for his new climate supremo.