Politicising Climate Change


Voting in the European Parliament is a painful process. Certain proposals - usually those which involve ‘political’ capital or money - attract amendments as dung draws flies, with each political group seeking to stamp its mark on the outcome. It is politics in the raw. Some amendments are party policy; others are lodged at the behest of governments seeking additional influence; some are sacrificial, made knowing full well they will never survive; some are personal hobby horses or national boondoggles; some, part of an opaque quid pro quo deal. If you are minded, an afternoon can be whiled away working it all out, if there is no paint around to watch dry.

Last week the Parliament’s Environment Committee voted on the mandate for the MEPs attending the UN Climate Change talks in Paris. For any would-be students of European affairs, the process represented a fascinating insight into how the Parliament does its business.

I sit on the Environment Committee. I will be a Parliamentary delegate to the Paris talks. I was a delegate at last year’s UN Climate Change talks in Lima. I am my party’s spokesman on Energy & Climate Change. And last but not least, I was my Group’s negotiator in the talks which hammered out the Paris resolution. As my American husband would say, ‘I have skin in the game.’

So let me explain how the mandate was developed, why it was a painful process, why the result was pants, and why it doesn’t actually matter anyway. Are you sitting comfortably…

Letting light in on magic

The Environment (ENVI) Committee leads on climate change matters, so the lead negotiator - rapporteur, in EU jargon - is drawn from its membership. The role is coveted; he who controls the drafting controls the process (think Madison and the US Constitution). Within a committee, the role of rapporteur is auctioned to the highest bidder. Groups are awarded ‘points’ at the beginning of each year weighted according to membership, and use these points to bid on dossiers.

Big groups start off with more points and so invariably win the auctions, but as the year progresses and their arsenal of points is depleted, so smaller groups can get in on the game. A wealth of tactics is deployed each auction forcing groups to spend more points than they would like, so using up their points faster.

Once the dossier is safely in the hands of a rapporteur, each Group appoints their own negotiator, or ‘shadow’ rapporteur, to negotiate on its behalf. And then the fun begins…

Who was that masked man?

The rapporteur for the UN Climate Change talks is French socialist Gilles Pargneaux. Mr Pargneaux is quite a character. As you would expect, several meetings preceded the Committee vote. During those discussions, I kept fumbling for a statement that would describe our respective positions. A phrase from Star Wars kept came to mind. In the words of Luke Skywalker, ‘If there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from…’

Generally brokering a deal amongst eight (often very) divergent groups is no easy task. However, there is an emerging consensus amongst the political groups in Brussels on matters climate related, making the role of rapporteur on the Paris dossier a little easier. The challenge for the rapporteur is therefore to coax compromise and agreement, to reach out, to discuss, to strive for the common ground.

There is an alternative strategy: the rapporteur works out where the votes are, and courts them remorselessly in the hope that a majority can be secured for a particular amendment, irrespective of the views of others. More divisive certainly, but not uncommon in the making of law.

So how was the Parliament’s resolution ahead of the UN Climate Change conference agreed?

You want to do what?

Let me give you an example. After several weeks of negotiation, as the negotiators were gently finding common ground, the rapporteur produced a ‘quite new’ amendment which called for monies raised from any future Financial Transaction Tax to be allocated to climate mitigation. This was something of a surprise for all around the table.

The concept of a Financial Transaction Tax - or Robin Hood Tax - has been around for some time. Whatever your views on the FTT, there is agreement on one thing: It is divisive. The UK has made its objections clear; with most financial deals done in the UK, the UK would pay about 80% of the tax. Sweden, the only country to introduce (and then withdraw the tax when all transactions vacated the Stockholm Bourse) was also vehemently opposed. Recent attempts to launch the FTT within a smaller group of EU states using the ‘enhanced co-operation mechanism’ have trundled gently into the long grass.

Several political groups around the negotiating table raised concerns. As they explained, if the FTT remained, they could not guarantee the support of their group for the Paris resolution. I was clearer - if the FTT remained, I can guarantee my group would vote against the resolution. Since FTT was quite (frankly extremely) peripheral to the negotiations, one might have thought a canny negotiator would have shelved the proposition.

Despite protests in the meeting, a written request to the rapporteur from my group advisor and from me (that went unanswered) on the day of the vote, the amendment was still front and centre. Mr Pargneaux had abandoned the ‘common ground’ approach and opted for the ‘votes in the bag’ approach.

So what happened next?

Well, the key to the ‘votes in the bag’ strategy is not just to count the votes in your own bag, but importantly count the votes in the other bag. Sadly Mr Pargneaux’s bag of votes was inadequate. He lost the vote by 34 to 32

Ultimately it was a pyrrhic victory. The remainder of the text contained more than enough to trouble me and my group. Whilst we support ambitious emissions targets, the targets in the resolution are simply unobtainable. Making the targets binding will lead to immediate conflict with the US, which would struggle to secure passage of such an approach through a regressive Congress. Further, ordering Member States exactly how and from what source to fund climate changes measures is unlikely to win support amongst the 28 Member states, let alone the wider world.

The ultimate test of the Environment Committee’s position, as brokered by Mr Pargneaux, will be how well it survives the plenary vote, scheduled for next month. Let’s wait and see.

What does it all mean for Paris?

Since the Parliament is not an accredited party to the UN negotiations (but rather an observer), the impact of the resolution on the wider talks will be muted. it is the Commission which will be in the room, alongside the 192 Governments represented at the gathering. That is not to say that Parliamentarians will not have a role. We may not be in the heart of the negotiations but there are plenty of opportunities to promote a serious and sensible agreement. It’s just a pity it is unlikely to be the resolution crafted by Mr Pargneaux.