As evening closed in on the European Parliament, the negotiations to shape crucial legislation on whether the EU can reach its climate goals were growing tense.
Strikingly, 40 per cent of Europe’s energy consumption goes into the running of buildings alone. They are also responsible for about 36 per cent of carbon emissions.
“If we can crack buildings, we’re well on our way to climate goals,” is how Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe puts it. The Dubliner is at the helm of crafting the legislation that sets down targets for EU countries to renovate their way towards building efficiency by 2050. It also attempts to unlock the required funding, through EU cash and measures such as favourable mortgages for green home renovations.
To make this law, parliament must first agree a version that represents the position of MEPs. Cuffe is in charge of this as lead negotiator, meaning he must bring together representatives of the parliament’s political groups to broker a compromise with majority support.
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The Tuesday night meeting in the bowels of the parliament was the tenth gathering of these negotiators, and compromise was proving elusive.
As fate would have it, one of those facing Cuffe on the other side of the table was fellow Irish MEP Séan Kelly of Fine Gael, representing the position of the European People’s Party – the most powerful block in parliament and a conservative voice on green issues.
“Obviously we have a different agendas,” Kelly explained. “He would be far more ambitious – I would say unrealistic. I’d be trying to be practical.”
The two “clashed” as negotiations came to a head. “I was making certain demands, and maybe expressing myself a bit strongly,” Kelly recalled. At one point the two broke away from the larger group of negotiators to overcome their differences in a one-to-one meeting.
Part of the difference was down to Kelly’s mandate to represent the strongly held views of members of the EPP from Italy, where the proposal had become the focus of a political storm.
Earlier this year the hard-right party of prime minister Giorgia Meloni attacked the measure as an “attempt to foist” rules on Italy regarding peoples homes, which are “sacred and can’t be touched”.
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Cuffe found himself the focus of Italian media coverage and having to counter wildly false claims, such as that people would be evicted from their homes if they failed to renovate them. Fears were aired that Italy’s ancient monuments would be forced to undergo unsightly overhauls, whereas in fact, member states exempt protected buildings.
“There’s no possibility of external insulation on the Pantheon,” Cuffe deadpanned. In a bid to bust some of the myths directly, he gave a 90 second speech entirely in Italian in the parliament’s January session.
Just short of 10pm on Tuesday, the compromise was cracked. The 12 negotiators gathered for a photograph to mark the moment. Kelly’s long day, which had begun at 5am in Kerry, ended with a late meal in a place he found open nearby.
The deal agreed is that all homes should be brought to an E energy efficiency rating by 2030 and a D by 2033. Non-residential buildings have tighter deadlines.
“I started off by saying I would like to get homes to a C energy rating by 2030. But when you’re dealing with different political group groups, and 27 different countries, that level of ambition meets the rock of reality,” Cuffe recalled.
The following day he made a last attempt to try to win over the European Conservatives and Reformists, the hard-right political group that includes the far-right Sweden Democrats and Spain’s Vox. Meloni is its president.
Stressing the Bill’s importance for tackling climate change is not going to convince all audiences, admits Cuffe. But he had “three other arguments” ready for the sceptics.
“It creates employment – good paying jobs, from unskilled up to professional level,” he said. “It reduces fuel bills,” something particularly important in the rental sector to incentivise landlords to improve homes – currently, high bills are the tenant’s problem.
And for the security-conscious, “it’s an opportunity to move away from fuel from Russia”.
Nevertheless, his case to the ECR fell flat. He emerged “without success”.
This parliament’s compromise position is likely to establish a maximum for how ambitious the final law can be. That’s because once approved by the relevant committee and confirmed by a plenary vote, negotiations with national member state governments will start. With the Italian government in the mix and other sceptics of the Bill represented by the current EU presidency, the Swedes, the legislation is set to face its toughest challenge yet.