Let’s start with a tricky question. Is the European Union’s Green New Deal a path toward the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050, as European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen sees it? Or do you agree with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s view of the deal as a “utopian fantasy”? Whatever interpretation you are leaning toward, the question itself reveals the current polarization across Europe.


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As in many other situations when an urgent EU response is needed, like when human rights violations are happening right on the bloc’s borders and shores, the roots of this political polarization are an intended result of populist anti-EU rhetoric spearheaded by the likes of Orban and other illiberal leaders. Nevertheless, the supposed dividing line between “old” and “new” EU member states on the perception of the green transformation is a by-product of failing Europeanization, something Orban and his consorts cannot be blamed for exclusively.

Fear of Falling Behind

Card players know the expression “new deal” as the reshuffling of a deck of cards that squares the players’ chances of victory. The Green New Deal, introduced in December 2019 by the European Commission, however, will not reset economic and social inequalities either globally or within the European Union itself. In the case of Hungary, for instance, among its nearly 10 million inhabitants, “income inequality has increased over the past decade and inequalities in access to public services remain high,” according to the 2020 country report by the European Commission.

Cohesion reports show that although previous policies have made significant contributions, economic and social disparities between member states persist. That’s why the European Commission installed the Just Transition Mechanism and the Just Transition Fund alongside other measures such as the Social Economy Action Plan to compensate possible losers of the transition with funding and social inclusion measures.

Experts point out the open questions regarding exactly how much public money will flow to the east. A big part of the transition is to be lifted by private investments. Heated debates on green taxation and investments are partly fueled by fears of “falling further behind the West.”

Concerns like this engender a general mistrust toward EU policies in the eastern European region. While the current framing of the Green New Deal focuses on the promise of a growth strategy with winners only, recipients in the east traditionally have doubts. Looking back to the 20th century, Europe has had plenty of experience with transitional processes, but lessons learned from various approaches vary tremendously across the continent.

Bad Memories

The Czech Republic, for example, is often presented as a transition success story. Yet a more differentiated view shows that the country is still struggling with the destructive effects of an unfinished transition. More than three decades after the change of regime, the political elite is dominated by businesspersons who gained economic power in the 1990s and have established a clientelist system characterized by a cascade of corruption scandals. Still facing a “wage curtain” vis-à-vis the West, the voters’ frustration with such legacies spelled defeat for Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ party in this year’s parliamentary election.

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The new government in Prague is trying to distance itself from previous paths and promotes a transition toward a green economy, emphasizing sanctions against polluters. The rhetoric, however, shows that the government’s commitment to change has its limits when prosperity is at risk. “The Green Deal represents a huge opportunity for Europe to invest in sustainable development, renewable energy and the circular economy. We will support any such measures which will not economically affect the living standards of the population of the Czech Republic,” Petr Hladík, deputy-mayor of Brno, stated recently.

Hungary has undergone several economic transitions after World War II. During the 1960s, a centrally-planned economy became more open. Then the so-called “goulash communism” paved the way toward a market economy, which was realized after the fall of the communist regime in 1989.

The economic transition has brought market integration and foreign investments, but also, 17 years after Hungary’s EU accession, welfare levels have not reached those of the original member countries. In the years after 1989, Hungarians experienced high unemployment, social insecurity and a general decline in productivity that has often been seen as the material shock of the transition process.

In the country’s collective memory, the transition has strong connotations with the rise in social inequality or, as Herman Hoen put it, the reforms that encompassed “welfare gains for some at the expense of others.” Negative experiences from transition periods, therefore, fuel the mistrust and general pessimism toward narratives of change and progress.

When it comes to environmental awareness that forms the basis for climate action, we must understand that both Marxist and capitalist ideologies have been strongly shaped by a worldview that sees nature as an obstacle to economic growth. Environmentalists in countries like Hungary, former Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria had successfully channeled a broad critique of the system by raising environmental concerns. But soon after the initial democratic transition, attention shifted toward economic priorities.

Some argue that the transitions of 1989-90 in Eastern Europe have ended with the accession to the EU in 2004 but, facing a democratic backlash, clientelism and attempts at state capture today, it seems more appropriate to describe it as an incomplete transition. Particularly, civil society and social movements offer insights into the non-linearity of democratic consolidation processes.

Although post-communist countries have very different transition processes and experiences, some suffering more, others less, they still share common struggles with social injustice and corruption as well as bad memories of the era of transformation.

Disillusionment

As a result of this disillusionment, many post-communist countries experienced a massive exodus to the West. According to Ivan Krastev, “With social inequality rising and social mobility stagnating in many countries in the world, it is easier to cross national borders than class barriers.” Many of those who stayed have become supporters of Orban and other populists who claim to be treated as second-class members of the EU and call out alleged double standards. Blaming Brussels for high energy prices, for example, falls on fertile ground.

In addition, growing disparities in fundamental values and migration practices fuel fears over further disintegration of the EU along an increasing east-west divide. If we look at the perception of climate action in Europe, this divide can be detected here too. In fact, although all member states agreed on the Green New Deal, it has many stumbling blocks in its path.

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A study by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that “Europeans are divided over a range of climate issues, including the EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), the role of nuclear energy in Europe’s future energy mix, bridging technologies with which to facilitate the transition to net zero, and the socio-economic consequences of closing down carbon-intensive industries.” The study also reveals that alliances along this fault line do not align in two diametrically opposed camps. This enables varying alliance-building measures and avoids stagnation when it comes to major decisions ahead.

According to a Eurobarometer survey from 2019, the awareness for necessary actions against climate change is increasing in all member states. When it comes to the question of whether climate change is one of the most serious problems, countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania are at the other end of the scale. Socio-demographic data show a clear correlation between awareness and the financial stability of respondents. Those with fewer financial difficulties are most likely to consider climate change as the most serious problem.

In the case of Hungary, there is a true clash of perceptions with the European Commission. But Viktor Orban is facing an election in early 2022 that might lead to a change in the power balance. In the end, the benefits from the financial resources of the Green New Deal might speak in its favor.

Bedtime Stories of Growth

“This transition will either be working for all and be just, or it will not work at all,” said Von der Leyen after the College of Commissioners had agreed on the European Green Deal. According to the Commission’s Just Transition Mechanism, the most vulnerable regions and sectors should receive compensation for disadvantages. When facing informed criticism of gender-blind environmental policies, studies on energy poverty in former communist countries, the concept of “black ecologies” as well as the colonial legacy and the continuing global injustice of the Anthropocene, we must admit that it is impossible for today’s policies — and politicians — to predict who will make up tomorrow’s vulnerable groups.

There is no doubt that Europe needs inclusive and smart policies, but regulations alone will not be enough. All green transformation mechanisms must be accompanied by multi-dimensional democratic reform. This means, first of all, the establishment of transnational agoras for grassroots participation in environmental policymaking. There needs to be a strong and broad democratic foundation as policy can only succeed once the trust in institutions is restored. Political culture and path dependencies are powerful and often underestimated barriers of change that can hardly be addressed by policy alone and require strong local civil societies.

Speaking of trust, the European Commission’s current narrative of a “new growth strategy” carries the risk of creating a false promise of a “transition without losers” while not being able to think ahead to identify all obstacles. Even if serious endeavors can alleviate most of the social costs of the transition, the measures will fail if structural reforms of the social welfare systems and education are being neglected.

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Coping with the climate emergency uncovers the EU’s biggest weakness, namely its various divisions. Cohesion policies need to be more inclusive to guarantee effectiveness. While many actors within the bloc and on its margins have already joined the new gold rush for renewables, the scramble for the enormous EU funds brings severe risks of corruption and exploitation of natural resources in countries with weak economies and democracies, like the Jadar project in Serbia clearly demonstrates.

Universal Change of Perspective

Nationalistic and ethnic biases have led to dysfunctions and hampered cooperation among civil society actors before and after 1989. Donatella Della Porta and Manuela Cainai’s demands for a “Europeanization from below” should not be caught up in the dynamics of a green transition. We have a historic chance for environmental concerns to be expressed on all levels of society, and the ears of EU institutions are wide open.

With the liberal opposition in Hungary joining forces against illiberal politicians in power, civil society’s ability to compromise and cooperate will decide its success. If it takes its role as watchdog and mediator between society and state seriously, it will need to develop trustworthy narratives of transition.

From a global perspective, the current story is built on risky grounds. The old growth strategy cannot be simply supplanted by a new one. If the Green New Deal means an agreement where, in the end, power and money stay concentrated in the global north while resources and advantages of the EU’s margins — such as the western Balkans — are exploited, the outcome of the transition will be a total disintegration of the EU accompanied by severe social upheavals. 

For many people then, the Green New Deal will not be a deal at all. The main responsibility for decarbonization lies with the global north. In this sense, the EU’s framing of climate action must be aligned with an honest inconvenient truth that it is not a trade deal with winners only but a unilateral sacrifice of privileges and a total change of perspective for the sake of all humanity.

As Mariana Mazzucato recently stated in Nature Sustainability, “What is needed now is to move beyond the static debate about growth or no growth and instead focus on fundamentally redirecting development towards achieving the goal of a more inclusive and sustainable planet. We need to pivot from a reactive market-failure-fixing approach towards a proactive market-shaping one.”

It is crucial that the Green New Deal is not just seen as a top-down policy bundle or a golden pot of money from Brussels, but a chance to reduce inequalities and to create a “good jobs economy.” The EU’s climate policies are indeed paving the way for decarbonization, but divisions within the bloc will always remain and might even further increase once the motor of growth revs up. The fight against climate change and injustice will then once again be led by civil society and proactive citizens, who need to follow a shared vision and hold politicians and corporations accountable for their actions.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.