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  • Teresa Turkheimer

Enter stage left: The incoming EU Commission's new challenges

In her opening statement to the European Parliament, the newly elected President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, stressed the importance of tackling climate change. Over the last few months, the EU has become a global leader in the fight against climate change with its tough enforcement of green values, as well as its strong environmental agenda. Despite political turmoil, it has also advocated for a larger and more homogenous union. In tandem with focusing on deeper integration and enlargement as a response to the divisive and Eurosceptic rhetoric that currently thrives across its member states, the EU may just weather the worst that populism and the environment has to throw at it.

Following the recent European Parliament elections, the EU has decided to dramatically respond to the environmental crisis; taking over where member states have failed. Von der Leyen has continuously emphasised the significance of this ‘climate emergency’ and has made it the union’s role to lead not only Europe, but the rest of the world in this crisis. In order to do so, the new commission has proposed a number of policies, including the ‘Green New Deal’ which seeks to make Europe ‘the first climate-neutral continent by 2050’. By virtue of strong leadership, its powerful economic and political position will inevitably trigger a domino effect across other non-EU nations to adhere to a greener world.

Although EU officials claim that their environmental policies will not upset economic growth, the institution’s climate change ambition may not marry so well when achieving cross-border trade. A recent trade agreement with the South American ‘Mercosur’ trade bloc fell through as a consequence of unwillingness to cooperate with European standards. The fight against climate change will certainly make enemies abroad. Von der Leyen’s recent proposition to impose a carbon border tax was swiftly rejected due to its numerous complexities regarding its enforcement. Unless the environmental demands that the new commission makes of outside countries are practical and proportionate, it will fail in achieving both trade deals and environmental aims.

The other challenge von der Leyen faces is the recent uptick in nationalist tendencies. Yet despite Brexit, the EU has continued to advocate for further integration and enlargement. Meetings have been held to discuss new methods for achieving membership within the European Union. A new process agreed on by all member states would re-stabilise the union and clarify the different membership options, ameliorating the procedure for future member states. Even though the divide between Western and Eastern member states regarding enlargement still exists, especially with regard to France’s latest veto to accession talks involving Albania and North Macedonia, they have all submitted their own proposals for enlargement.

Yet the incoming commission continues to advocate for a closer regional alliance. Proposals for a common European Defence strategy have been submitted whilst Ukraine has more recently become further ingrained within the institution, in spite of the turbulence its membership created beforehand. Although the strategy is yet to be formally introduced, we can evidently see that the EU’s principle motivation of integration has not been accommodating anti-EU sentiment. Eurosceptics strongly argue that enhanced enlargement and integration will cause the demise of the EU because of its inability to maintain such a large and complex alliance, but the union’s current state hints otherwise.

The EU’s exemplary fight against climate change has the potential to force the world into a collective campaign. It may encounter obstacles along the way, I have faith that the EU will be successful in achieving its environmental targets. What was once wanting of the EU – direct accountability to local electorates – has essentially become its strength. It is able to go forward with policies of global impact which regional governments are incapable of realising. Despite recent turmoil, the new commission is evidently committed to the importance of an interconnected community, even when at times popular sentiment cheers on for its dissolution.

Image - Flickr (European Parliament)

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