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regular-article-logo Thursday, 18 July 2024

Feel the heat

Take Germany, for example. Last summer, the German Greens outlined a bill that would require all new buildings in Germany to instal heating systems that use at least 65% renewable energy

Carol Schaeffer Published 09.07.24, 07:24 AM
Supporters of the French far-Right party, National Rally, react after the elections to the European Parliament

Supporters of the French far-Right party, National Rally, react after the elections to the European Parliament Sourced by The Telegraph

The far-Right across Europe has more voting power than ever before. In last month’s elections to the Parliament of the European Union, far-Right parties across 27 nations captured over a fourth of the 720 seats. This means that the far-Right coalition could effectively immobilise EU-wide governance until the next election, five years from now. And a key area of lawmaking which not only impacts Europe but also the world is at risk: climate change.

Although far-Right parties across Europe are using the same anti-immigrant rhetoric that they have in the last decade, this year saw a major shift with these parties weaving in attacks on climate change policies into their rhetoric. Almost without exception, far-Right parties have remained ambiguous on concrete proposals on how to effectively respond to demands for reaching the CO2 emission targets set by the Paris Agreement, preferring instead to cast doubt on the entire decarbonisation project and attack green politicians and their initiatives as either willfully ignorant or maliciously dismissive of the concerns of voters who already feel that they are economically stretched thin.

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Take Germany, for example. Last summer, the German Greens outlined a bill that would require all new buildings in Germany to instal heating systems that use at least 65% renewable energy. In a leaked version of the bill, the language also mandated that any building, including private homes, with broken heating systems would be required to meet this goal. The bill was met with widespread resistance and protest. The Alternative for Germany, smelling blood in the water, quickly capitalised on the discontentment. Alice Weidel, an AfD leader, called the law a “prosperity annihilation in really absolute gigantic dimensions”. Almost instantly, the AfD saw a significant jump in polling, going from 15% to 21% in a matter of weeks, making the party the second most popular one in Germany. The AfD cast itself as the party of freedom and choice while the Greens and its allies became dictatorial, socialist boogeymen. “They tell you which car you have to drive, what heating you have to use and what to eat and everything. It’s no more a free country,” one voter told Politico in October 2023.

Despite a polling dip following a scandal where a leak revealed AfD members meeting with neo-Nazis and discussing plans to deport German citizens with “migration backgrounds”, the AfD saw its biggest electoral success in the EU parliamentary elections since its founding in 2013. Meanwhile, the parties of the current coalition government — the Greens, the neo-liberal Free Democrats, and the Centre-Left Social Democrats — each performed poorly. In particular, the Social Democrats, Germany’s oldest party and the party of the current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, saw its worst electoral performance in the party’s 161-year history. Much of the blame for the AfD’s polling and electoral success has been attributed to the party focusing on anti-immigrant rhetoric and expanding into attacks on green initiatives.

Researchers at the Hertie School based in Berlin have been cautious about attributing the far-Right’s success to a “greenlash”, saying that counter to popular assumptions, support for addressing climate change remains high and that far-Right voters are motivated by other issues such as the war in Ukraine and immigration. Their study, conducted in Germany, France and Poland, suggests that the idea of a backlash against green policies is largely overblown. But the attacks on green policies do not seem to be hurting the AfD with the Greens still struggling to shake off the AfD-led accusations that label it as a party of ideological elites that does not care about the economic consequences of its policies.

This pattern is clear elsewhere in Europe as well, particularly in France where the far-Right has perhaps been the most successful in the continent. The Centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, called a snap presidential election in response to the far-Right’s dizzying gains in the EU parliamentary elections. After a strong lead in the first round of the snap elections, the far-Right squared off on July 7. More than 200 Left and Centre candidates pulled out to avoid splitting the vote against the far-Right. The tactic worked and staved off the possibility of France’s first far-Right government since World War II. But the far-Right has gained more parliamentary seats than ever before.

On the surface, the RN acknowledges the seriousness of climate change and promotes independence from imported oil and gas. In the 2022 presidential election, the RN party leader and presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, assured the public that she was not a climate denier and her campaign material provided a glossy ecological image that claimed to place the issue “at the heart of the national renewal project”. But her climate proposals are mostly oblique attacks on decarbonisation policies that attempt to transition France to renewable energy.

For example, in the 2022 campaign for the French presidential elections, Le Pen proposed to ban wind turbines, calling them “horrors that cost us a fortune”, and even went so far as to suggest dismantling them, which itself would cost hundreds of millions of euros. Instead of renewable energy, the RN wants to double down on France’s historic relationship with nuclear energy and promises to build 20 new nuclear reactors by 2042. Experts have criticised this as an unrealistic and intensely expensive undertaking that would likely be far more costly than investment in renewable energy.

Like many far-Right policies across the continent, the proposal is nostalgic rather than practical. Despite being one of the most expensive ways to produce energy, nuclear power is, in many ways, sacrosanct in France, personified by the towering historic status of physicists such as Antoine Henri Becquerel and Marie Curie. And the RN’s proposal is nostalgic in another way as it bears striking resemblance to the ‘Messmer Plan’, which was created in response to the 1973 oil crisis by the then prime minister, Pierre Messmer, leading to the construction of 58 nuclear reactors across France. The project, at the time, was seen as an unavoidable devil’s bargain. As one British energy official put it in 1986: “France has no coal, France has no oil, France has no gas, France has no choice.” Today, around 70% of France’s energy is generated through nuclear power, although Messmer’s goal was to reach 100%. The long and short of Le Pen’s plan is to continue a panicked and desperate attempt made half a century ago and to wave away the alternatives that are available to France now unlike then.

All this said, the far-Right is far from entirely unified at the EU level. It is a reactionary movement not bound by a single modern ideology. But on migration, green issues and human rights far-Right parties will likely coalesce as a powerful vetoing block that could immobilise every practical green measure that the European Parliament tries to bring forward. This will have severe consequences for global measures to combat climate change.

Far-Right parties across the continent have thus far benefitted from being contrarian, even if what they support will hurt their own voters. But the tactic of putting their opponents’ feet to the political fire has benefitted the far-Right. And, as the planet warms year after year, we will all begin to feel the heat.

Carol Schaeffer is a journalist based in Berlin, Germany, and is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C.

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