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The COVID-19 crisis is giving Europe a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let’s take it.

Christoph Nedopil Wang

Erik Solheim

Erik Solheim

A Norwegian politican & diplomat, I served as Minister of Environment, Minister for International Development & was the Executive Director of the UN’s Environment Programme.

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Europe’s prospects could not be better, but its challenges have rarely been greater.

First, COVID-19 has only accelerated problems that were already present: economic and social stress, unemployment, general sentiments towards lack of progress, and identity conflicts. This is giving rise to populist and conspiratory forces.

Second, there is the seemingly binary choice between aligning Europe with fast rising China or its historic ally, the US, which is currently struggling with an erratic government that threatens to undermine the liberal and multilateral order. This order, led and underpinned by the US, provided the basis for Europe’s wealth and post-war peace.

Finally, the biggest threat to Europe is not limited to Europeans, but threatens the entire world and its populace. That is the triple environmental crisis of climate change, pollution and loss of biological diversity.

Yet, by having to address such an unprecedented event such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe has been given a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to develop a coherent response to address all three challenges: the economic and social cohesion within the continent, its soft power internationally, and the ecological resilience in each country. A “good” crisis should not be wasted, we should build back better. For this to happen, Europe needs to dream big, and find a convincing answer that will serve its citizens better than any other alternative — be it today, tomorrow and or in the distant future.

Most of Europe is already dreaming — it is dreaming a Green Dream: technocrats with their Green Deal and the Green Finance Taxonomy; voters by electing mayors and local governments with green agendas.

Green is not only a party. Green has become Europe’s dream.

But dreaming alone will not suffice. Much action is required to fit green into Europe’s social contract which is defined by its diversity. And while many elements of a technical framework for such a Green Dream are in place, much stronger leadership is required on some key areas to make this dream a reality.

Europe’s social contract

Future developments in Europe depend on whether its citizens feel “European”, with a shared narrative and a belief that the European system serves each and every citizen better than any alternative. This is the essence of the contract between Europe and its citizens.

To understand what defines Europe and its social contract, a lot has been written and said. In her speeches to the European parliament in 2007 and 2018, German chancellor Angela Merkel praised “diversity” and the “willingness to compromise” as core European values. The freedom and possibility to develop ideas and explore plural opinions has required Europeans to create a unique political, economic and social framework. The promise of Europe has been to allow all types of European opinions and lifestyles to flourish — from Öland to Sicilia, from the Scottish Highlands to Transylvania — a promise no-one thought possible after World War II.

And most Europeans have found a plurality of political voices in the European arena. In the US, people can choose between “for” or “against” the two parties representing ever more opposing views. In China, all people should support the one party. Europeans, while often being annoyed by endless political debates, should cherish our culture of criticising and building coalitions in multi-party systems where more opinions are a necessity. This might make decision-making slower, but ideally more balanced.

This European contract is, by design, not without friction as interests and technology are in constant motion. But it is exactly this constant development and friction that defines the European social contract. What is necessary to make it successful is a framework and direction that unites the many pieces of the European puzzle.

While Europe’s opinions and cultures provide for diversity, deeper currents also unite Europeans. For example, Europeans are not questioning the state as in the US, nor do they believe in a centralized state as in China.1 Hardly any question the idea of the welfare state, where government provide fundamental services like education, health and infrastructure. Most Europeans, with a few exceptions, are liberal on social, religious and cultural issues. They also seek work-life balance, and believe in the strength of multilateral frameworks. Above all, Europeans seem intent on protecting what we see as European, even when that definition in itself is in question.

Building a green Europe has become the common dream for most Europeans. A dream that can contribute to a credible European identity. Over the years, European institutions have already developed some leading green frameworks to support the green dream. The EU Taxonomy published in April 2020 is, to date, the most ambitious and clearly defined framework for environmentally aligned investments. The EU agreements on phasing out emissions and protecting biodiversity are among the most forward-looking in the world.6 Europe’s emission trading scheme is the world’s most advanced, aligning Europe strategically with the Paris agreement to limit climate change. The recently developed strategy for phasing out single use plastics is the most developed of any major power.

Making the European Green Dream come true


Addressing short-term challenges post-COVID-19

In the short-term, to protect the European social contract– upon which this dream is built–  leaders must prioritize stabilising the economy and create jobs (apart, of course, from ensuring its citizens’ health). According to recent studies by the likes of Oxford University, McKinsey and the International Energy Agency (IEA), Europe should spend its — surprisingly aggressive — 750 billion euros stimulus, as well as their national stimulus for “green” investments, to generate employment and economic returns.

Government spending on renewable energy and energy efficiency has been shown to create more jobs than spending on fossil fuels. “Green Stimulus is more job-creating than fossil-fuel stimulus” (Source: McKinsey)

For example, 10 million USD investments in green energy creates 75 jobs, three times more than the same investment in fossil fuel energy. This requires strong leadership to not bail out yesterday’s industries backed by the force of big lobbies, but to use the momentum to build back better and set the stage for long-term green growth.

Three foundations for long-term Green Dreaming

Over the medium to longer term, Europeans needs to build three foundations for a solid European Green Dream.

First, Europe needs green leadership that inspires and that allows the many puzzle pieces of Europe to be put in their place — in all regions of Europe, poor and rich. Leadership will in particular mean working with businesses and communities to develop green policies and green business frameworks, while avoiding a prescriptive industrial policy. The diversity of Europe should be harnessed — with failures being an inevitable part of the green journey.

To invigorate this can-do spirit and be a cheerleader along this journey, European leaders at all levels need to become better at telling the story of the European Green Dream. As an example: renaming climate change to “climate emergency” in November 2019 may galvanize some people through fear, but it does not provide an inspiring direction forward. The need of the hour is a positive narrative, the optimistic can-do attitude of winners.

The European Green Deal provides a possible framework, but risks getting stuck in technocratic sloganeering. Europe’s green dream must inspire many more layers of society — from its cities to its start-ups, from its art to its architecture. It is not a short-term goal, but a goal that requires the enthusiasm of many generations across all spheres of society.

Both carrot and stick are needed. Europe is in need of incentives to move forward, but also sanctioning mechanisms to punish laggards. The failure to sanction environmental destruction, or continuing to support environmentally harmful activities (e.g. in financing fossil fuels, in subsidizing harmful agricultural practices) undermines trust in leadership and the seriousness of the Green Dream.

Second, it is critical to avoid culture or identity wars based on negative presumptions regarding “green”. While the vast majority of Europeans support a green direction for the continent, there is always the danger that green issues will create polarised societies, based on fake news or real conflicts of interest. For instance, we often see in Europe a divid between urban and rural areas with highly educated women in cities taking the green driving seat while less educated male workers in rural areas make up for the opposite pole. Broad consensus is critical to carry out future green policies.

This means that the green transformation must be fair, create better jobs, use a language appealing to everyone, represent a movement going beyond urban cities, and stop all finger pointing.

Finally, Europe needs a clear strategy for its international partnerships to build its Green Dream. Most of the environmental problems facing Europe are not confined within the continent, but are also important to the rest of the world. Conversely, the actions of the rest of the world matter immensely to Europe. To truly benefit from a green Europe, leaders in the capitals need to better reign in their habit of letting their short-term national interest trump more promising European goals. This only accelerates the centrifugal forces in Europe with all its negative consequences. Rather, Europe should work frequently with multilateral institutions to find solutions that are relevant to the global community. At the same time, in cases where multilateral institutions are being undermined, Europe should support them by building alliances with partners who are willing to tackle environmental problems in the shorter term. European leaders should actively support emerging economies and work with those international partners who are in line with Europe’s green strategy, providing such partners better investment conditions and more aid, while being clear that it does not support activities that undermine green development. Partnerships on green development with China and India are particularly important. And the US (if Joe Biden is elected) will soon bounce back as a major partner for green development. American government, states and business will again be aligned in the fight against climate change and the destruction of nature.

By being a reliable partner with clear domestic and international strategic policy, the expected result is an increase in Europe’s soft power, which in turn should lead to positive reinforcements: more economic opportunities in green economic sectors, attraction of international top-talents, and more convening power to set a green global agenda. Ideally, a green Europe will not have to choose between partners, but will be the partner of choice.

Eureka! A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a European

Green Dream

Few do not doubt that the world is changing and that Covid-19 will serve as an accelerator for change. Yet, the big question is what changes will take place and who will lead such changes? For Europeans, the change for a Green Europe is still a dream. Yet it is the dream that most Europeans dare to dream.

If there was ever a time to make the dream come true, the money to do it and the urgency to act, it is now. Eureka! Europeans, we can realise the Green Dream!

Christoph Nedopil Wang

Born in Bavaria and raised as a European, I was privileged to experience Europe from the inside-out. I have worked in five continents with the World Bank and the German government’s development organization for 12 years, with 7 years in academic institutions in Germany, Switzerland, USA and China. These experiences have not only reinforced my deeply rooted identity as a European, but by working with entrepreneurs, NGOs and governments, I have learned about various approaches to forming public narratives, the challenges in public leadership, the absolute necessity to focus on sustainable development that is green, inclusive and competitive (as well as myriad excuses not to put the money where the mouth is) and the diversity needed to foster public dialogues. Accidental European contributes to a great dialogue in Europe, and it is my pleasure to be able to add my voice.

Erik Solheim

Erik Solheim

A Norwegian politican & diplomat, I served as Minister of Environment, Minister for International Development & was the Executive Director of the UN’s Environment Programme.