The European Parliament, where the hopes of a continent can rest on the change of a word

Europe Letter: Unexpected defeat as liberal parties try to stop environmental measures being weakened too much

Voting was proceeding rhythmically – amendment 359D, who’s in favour? Rejected. Amendment 78, who’s in favour? Adopted – when it was interrupted by murmuring from the seats of the centre-left socialists and democrats. Their leader, Iratxe García Pérez, asked for the floor.

The Spanish MEP requested a break of three minutes – to shouts of protest from the right of the chamber. Her group needed to consult about what their “final vote” would be. They were no longer sure they could support a key reform aimed to get the European Union to its target of carbon neutrality by 2050.

An amendment had passed in the seconds prior, backed by the centre-right European People’s Party, watering down a plan to stop giving free permits to emit carbon dioxide to some high-polluting industries.

The end date for these free carbon credits had slipped from 2030 as agreed in the Environment Committee, to 2032 in a pre-vote compromise, to 2034 with a new amendment. The hope of the Paris Agreement – to try to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees and ward off the worst effects of climate change – was slipping away.

The vote would set the parliament position for coming negotiations with the member state governments and European Commission, the so-called trilogues that establish what will ultimately become EU law. Member states as a rule always water down climate goals. Therefore, what parliament voted for in that moment would set a ceiling on the ambition of what would ultimately come into force.

The MEPs rose from their seats and converged, heads bent in consultation, gesticulating, urging, those in the outer circles straining to hear. After calls to be seated, García Pérez took her place, looked across the parliament and lifted a defiant arm with her thumb pointed down: no.

A clamour of whoops, shrieks and applause broke out as the package was voted down: the votes of the socialists and the Greens combining improbably to defeat it with those of the right-wing opponents to the climate measures who wanted the whole effort to fail outright.

A furious exchange erupted, far from the usual scripted contributions of MEPs to the chamber, with left and right accusing each other of jeopardising common goals by working with the parliament’s extremes.

Hopes of a continent

It was a snapshot of how Europe’s future is ground out in the legislative mill of the European Parliament, where the hopes of a continent can rest on the change of a word, date or percentage.

An example once given to me: in a law on the conservation of wetlands, the word “restore” was changed to “maintain”, giving licence to keep the EU’s vast tracks of such habitats in their degraded and greenhouse gas-producing state, rather than fixing them as originally intended.

The legislation starts with a commission proposal, then works its way through committees, rounds of votes, to the trilogue negotiations and then back for final approval.

How to keep track? On Wednesday alone, eight different key climate proposals were scheduled for votes in the parliament. That is aside from the debate with Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, discussions on Uighurs and rule of law in Poland, deals that were reached to bring in a standard EU charger, quotas for women on boards, an EU minimum wage – all at the same Strasbourg plenary.

In the build-up to Wednesday’s vote bonanza, two MEPs confided that, despite the help of their assistants and party groups, they were struggling to keep up.

There are some with the time and resources, however, to not miss a trick: the lobbyists, who outnumber journalists many times over.

At every stage, the industry pressure is intense. MEPs’ assistants wade through hundreds of emails a day, the most common of them from business interests pushing for a few more years of the status quo.

After the ructions of Wednesday, the scent of rebellion is in the air. It spells trouble for the controversial taxonomy proposal led by Ireland’s European commissioner, Mairead McGuinness, to classify nuclear and gas energy as green investments, widely seen in the parliament as the heavily lobbied result of efforts to favour the industrial interests of France and Germany.

The campaign group Avaaz brought two Ukrainians to the plenary session – the environmental lawyer and co-founder of Stand With Ukraine Dr Svitlana Romanko, and Ukraine’s head of delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Prof Svitlana Krakovska – to do the rounds to try to persuade MEPs to vote it down.

“It’s only companies that will benefit,” Romanko told The Irish Times. “Gas and nuclear companies – including from Russia.”