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What Does the EU Election Mean for European Climate Policy?

Although the far right's latest electoral gains were not driven primarily by an opposition to climate policies, they will have deleterious effects on Europe's green transition over the next five years. The immediate lesson for climate campaigners is that they have a messaging problem.

PARIS – It has been a difficult few weeks for those of us committed to achieving a greener, more progressive Europe. In the European Parliament election, far-right parties won some 20% of the vote and secured nearly one-fifth of all seats. In my own country, France, National Rally finished in first place, and may soon be able to form a far-right government, should it manage to repeat the performance in the upcoming snap election.

While far-right parties’ positions on immigration and cost-of-living issues account for most of their gains, many also are openly hostile to climate policies. Yet fatalism would be the worst possible response. The election results were not a repudiation of ambitious green policies, and it would be a historic mistake for our leaders to interpret them that way. Opinion polls consistently show that Europeans support stronger action on climate change, with a vast majority (77%) regarding it as a very serious problem.

Contrary to some headlines, pro-EU parties held their ground in the overall composition of the European Parliament. The center-right European People’s Party (EPP) remains the largest grouping and will be at the heart of any coalition that is formed. In its 2024 campaign program, it committed to continuing and further developing the European Union’s landmark Green Deal.

Nor was the far-right “wave” felt across Europe. In Slovakia, the centrist Progressive Slovakia party beat the populist incumbent party on the back of record voter turnout. In the Nordic countries, progressive pro-climate parties made advances, and far-right populist parties actually lost support. The rest of Europe could learn a lot from Finland, where a serious, multi-pronged strategy of countering misinformation has made it less susceptible than any other EU country to fake news.

That said, there is no denying that far-right gains will have negative implications for progressive policy goals. Ambitious climate action will not have the same full-throated support that it did over the past five years, when there was a broad consensus for it. Issues like security, competitiveness, and migration featured heavily in the election campaign and will surely take priority over reducing emissions. Policymaking will be more transactional, with political horse-trading leading to a less ideologically consistent climate program.

How should those of us who want the EU to maintain its climate leadership respond to these new realities? In part, we face a communications challenge. We must demonstrate the wider benefits of the green transition: how it will help people lead healthier, safer, more prosperous and dignified lives. It is not enough to complain that the right has cynically exploited voters’ grievances and worries. We need to offer a more appealing, positive vision of the alternative. Political polarization can be addressed only with fairer policies and by listening to citizens – many of whom feel ignored and marginalized.

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Green campaigners must also convince a more rightward-leaning EU leadership that Europe’s problems are interlinked and cannot be addressed in isolation. Since climate change contributes to other challenges like geopolitical instability and migration, climate action must be an integral part of Europe’s approach to security.

These election results further confirm that we need to emphasize the social dimension of policymaking, both at the EU and the national level. We must get serious about addressing major inequalities in wealth and emissions, together with regional disparities. These have increasingly come to define European society, creating ripe conditions for the far right and the broader backlash against climate policies.

Consider that, in both the United States and the EU, the wealthiest decile emits 3-5 times more than the median individual, and around 16 times more than the poorest decile. This injustice is not lost on voters. In France, 76% of people agree that “energy sobriety is imposed only on the people, but not on the elites,” and 79% agree that “it is the poorest who pay for the climate and energy crisis while it is the richest who are responsible for it.”

The public’s justified sense of unfairness will be a persistent obstacle to climate progress for as long as these disparities are left unaddressed. We need a radical change of approach to put social justice and equity at the center of policymaking, and to defend and improve democracy itself. In many European countries, progressive campaigners and NGOs are under growing pressure and facing new legal restrictions as part of a wider rollback of democratic freedoms. In some cases, we are witnessing a brazen effort to squeeze civil society.

The European election results ought to remind us that the European Green Deal and European democracy are preconditions for climate action and any other progressive causes. Let’s not give up. I have spent enough of my life campaigning on climate change to know that progress is not linear. The onus is on us to regroup and renew our commitment to a fairer, greener future.