Just Transition is the Right Response to the Far Right

The Far Right’s success in this month’s European elections was not as absolute as many commentators claim and cannot provide cover for watering down the Green Deal.

By David Gow

This article was first published on David Gow’s substack on 14 June 2024: https://davidgow.substack.com/p/just-transition-is-the-right-response

“You can kiss goodbye to the European Green Deal,” Prof Simon Hix of the EUI in Florence told FT readers glibly as the results of the June 6-9 European elections rolled in. These showed a voter swing to the Far Right and backlash against net zero policies as pundits far and wide had predicted. But did they really? Perhaps this was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

More tellingly for the next five years and beyond, Europe’s climate change challenges, including industrial renewal, will intensify rather than abate between now and, say, 2040 in the face of intensive and accelerating competition from the US and China. Three days after the vote, Brussels slapped extra 38.1% tariffs on Chinese exports of electric vehicles to the EU in a desperate protectionist response to such competition. But Europe’s geo-economic ambitions will need more than trade defence measures to succeed.

The rich panoply of green industrial strategy plans put forward by the outgoing von der Leyen commission, notably by Thierry Breton, internal market commissioner, remain a necessary, often overdue, response to the Biden Inflation Reduction Act, designed with other measures to inject $2trn into the US fight against climate change and reboot its economic competitiveness, and Chinese state investment project, often known as Made in China 2025, that’s on a similar scale.

The twin green and digital transition should not and cannot be held back by prevarication on the EU leadership’s part. Trump-style investment support for fossil-fuel technology and industry will simply prove a recipe for continuing economic stagnation, declining productivity and innovation – and even greater voter frustration and disenchantment.

The great backlash

Journalists and commentators display a growing tendency towards a confirmation bias, notably on social media: having predicted chaos and even the apocalypse they find it in the real world regardless. So it was on June 9 when the election results emerged. Of course, in the two big so-called “locomotive states,” Germany and France, the Far Right did well but no better than forecast. Elsewhere, in some cases, the Greens did pretty well – viz Denmark and the Netherlands in both of which Red-Green came out on top (marginally).

In Germany the Far Right AfD (despite scandals) polled 15.9% – or below its peak of around 20% in some polls and half the support of the CDU/CSU (Kohl and Merkel’s party and its Bavarian sister that have ruled for most of the past 34 post-unification years) on 31%. The Social Democrats of Chancellor Olaf Schulz slumped to 13.9% while his coalition partners the Greens, which have outpolled the SPD occasionally, dwindled to 11.9% and the Liberal FDP to 5.2%. In some western German university cities/towns AfD support was in the mid-single digits. Hardly a Nazi Party-style breakthrough on the scale of 90 years ago but rather deep dissatisfaction with a hugely under-performing German economy.

Meanwhile, in France the National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen/Jordan Bardella did, as predicated, top the polls, with 31.4% and 30 of the country’s 81 seats. President Macron’s Renew came second on 14.6% and 13 seats while the socialists (ex-PS) staged a mini-recovery to 13.8% and 13 seats. The Greens (Ecolos) won just 5.5% of the popular vote or the same as the populist Reconquest of Eric Zemmour. The obvious question now is whether RN can maintain or increase that momentum in the snap general election called by Macron in the hope it won’t. 

Overall, with turnout up marginally at 51.01%, this was not the seismic Zeitenwende promoted in febrile reportage. The centrist coalition of the three biggest parties in the European Parliament holds 403 of the 720 seats, with the centre-right EPP up 13 to 189 and the Socialists & Democrats down just 3 to 135. Again, feverish speculation that the EPP would combine with the Far Right to form a new majority for the five-year cycle appears wide of the mark. On verra.

Climate’s categorical imperative

When Ursula von der Leyen finally scraped home (with just none votes more than required) as Commission President in 2019 and went on to give her first State of the Union address, she spoke of a geopolitical EU. At its heart was to be/is the economic transition exemplified by the Green Deal, designed as we have seen to transform Europe’s economy and industry, combat climate change (the Fit for 55 agenda) in a manner setting the pace for the rest of the world and end stagnation and apathy.

Five years (almost) later we can hardly hail a huge success story as this month’s elections underline. Voters in the UK (as in the UK and US) remain profoundly demotivated to the point of near-despair frequently at the lack of progress in overcoming successive crises, not least the widening income and wealth inequality. But there’s a strong sense, too, that Europe’s 370m voters in the majority accept that greening the economy in the battle against climate change/global warming is ineluctable.

In the next EU legislative cycle to 2029, this greening (plus digital transformation) must continue but it must come with greater sensitivity towards people’s readiness, a much bigger emphasis on informing and educating and, above all, socio-economic justice. The much-heralded just transition should be the leitmotif of the next five years. This is a much better response than rowing back on green ambition as von der Leyen – and Keir Starmer in the UK – have articulated.

In my home country of Scotland, where most parties endorse a green policy agenda in some shape or form, an entirely spurious debate aka row is taking place over Labour’s alleged threat to 100,000 Scottish jobs in the North Sea oil and gas industry by upping the windfall tax on corporate profits and/or phasing out new exploration licences. This in a country, a polity, that prides itself on its green ambitions/targets. In reality, around 40,000 Scottish jobs may (or may not) be under threat but even this overstates the case by focusing on a static picture.

What’s genuinely at stake is the just transition in which, unlike earlier de-industrialisations of the 1980s, say, new skills, jobs and investments are in prime spot on the agenda. In Scotland, for instance, the switch to widely available wind energy (and other renewables) could create tens of thousands of jobs. But, as the Scottish Trade Union Congress pointed out in a recent report highlighted here, that would mean £2bn investment, including in 19 manufacturing sites compared with today’s…none.

The just transition, with investment in new jobs and skills at its core, is the right answer to the Far Right.

Picture credit: Kirsty Hughes