News & Media

EU must provide global leadership on climate change

18 December 2019

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Speaking on post European Council statements in the Dáil, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said that:

"The single biggest economic challenge facing the European Union is to provide global leadership on climate change, not least as the current American President and his administration is in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

Labour strongly endorses the European Council’s decision to back the objective of the European economy becoming climate-neutral by 2050, in line with our international commitments.

I welcome the fact that Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, from Labour’s sister party in the Netherlands, is leading on the EU’s Green New Deal programme.

I have no doubt that this programme will be designed to help the creation of new, sustainable jobs and to provide targeted support to the regions of Europe that will find it most challenging to achieve the target of climate neutrality.

It is regrettable that one member state, Poland, could not commit to the 2050 objective.

This is to be revisited in June 2020, when I hope that their government will be brought on board.

But if this is not possible, the EU will need to look at measures to make sure that our collective targets are not undermined by one member state, especially given that Poland still has a significant coal mining industry.

Two things are clear from the European Council conclusions on climate action.

Firstly, every member state needs to have a forward-looking vision of how it can transform its economy through research and innovation.

Secondly, this transformation will require major investment, and the state will have to take a lead role in making this investment.

Labour welcomes the European Council’s call for the development of strong research policies and innovation policies.

What are the government’s plans?

What additional resources will be made available to universities, including the new technological universities, to engage in the kind of research that could assist the development of sustainable low-carbon technologies?

And what additional investment will be made in state enterprises to allow them to scale up their pilot programmes in various sustainable economic activities from wind energy to recycling to new forms of land management?

Or is the government relying on the private sector to lead on all of this?

The government should clearly outline its strategic approach, as its willingness to back investment underlines the credibility (or not) of its climate strategy.

Labour welcomes the European Council’s focus on an economic transition that is just, socially balanced and fair, not just cost efficient and competitive.

I welcome the European Investment Bank’s intention to facilitate €1 trillion of investment in climate action and environmental sustainability in the period from 2021 to 2030.

That sounds like a lot of money, but one thousand billion over ten years is €100 billion per year, and Ireland’s share by population size would be only around €1 billion per year.

Will Ireland benefit from €1 billion of EIB investment every year?

What are the government’s plans or the government’s information on how that money may be invested in Ireland?

The European Commission has announced €100 billion of investment will be made available through a Just Transition Mechanism.

Labour has been calling for such a Just Transition approach, meaning investment to create of new, sustainable jobs in those regions that have to undergo the greatest level of change to become climate neutral.

I give a cautious welcome to the invitation extended by the European Council to the Commission to consider changing state aid and public procurement rules in order to facilitate our climate neutrality objectives.

There is no doubt in my mind that state enterprises will have to play a significant role, and we should be willing to rethink existing rules that may hold state enterprises back from making major capital investments that would help achieve our climate targets.

As I’ve said before, I am critical of the Strategic Agenda set out by the new Commission under Ursula von der Leyen.

It lacks the level of ambition needed to drive Europe forwards in social or environmental terms.

However, I’m glad to see the Council recommending that we hold a Europe-wide Conference on the Future of Europe in the period 2020 to 2022.

This will be an important opportunity to spell out a vision for a People’s Europe based on sustainability and quality of life, rather than just a European Market, which is what the von der Leyen Agenda largely offers.

I note that in June next year there will be another EU summit with the African Union. This is a vital relationship, and I hope that Europe’s strategic interests will be matched by a willingness to invest in Africa, such as through a new Marshall Plan for Europe’s neighbourhood.

We also need to look at how European corporation tax policies may be withdrawing vital public funding from Africa to a greater extent than how our foreign development aid flows in the opposite direction.

Reform of corporation tax rules at EU level needs to take account of their effect outside Europe’s borders too.

I welcome the solidarity shown to Albania following the recent tragic earthquake in that country, which has left at least 51 people dead and over 14,000 homeless.

I hope the EU will offer practical support in catching the developers and engineers who have fled the country because they are being pursued by Albania’s authorities for failure to comply with regulations, which led to building collapses during the earthquake.

While I welcome the offer of assistance, Albania and North Macedonia should have been put on a formal route to EU membership at the previous EU Council meeting, and I regret that this has not yet occurred.

Following the normal European Council meeting, there was a so-called Article 50 meeting.

This was a formality, given that Boris Johnson was not in attendance at the European Council meeting anyway due to the British general election on the 12th December.

I welcome the fact that the European Council has clearly stated that “a balance of rights and obligations” and “a level playing field” must be maintained in any future UK-EU relationship.

This is particularly important as Boris Johnson’s announcement that he will legislate to prevent any delay to the UK’s transition period means that the talks will proceed at a fast pace and there is a real risk of a crunch moment in late 2020 where the EU has to choose between an inadequate deal or else no deal at all.

No deal is unlikely to last long, given the dire economic consequences for the UK, but a rushed deal could have negative long-term consequences if it does not sufficiently protect the European market from being undermined by a race to the bottom in social and environmental standards.

It is already rumoured that the new Conservative government may remove social and environmental protections from the Withdrawal legislation, which had been given as concessions to Labour by the previous administration.

If this happens, it will clearly signal that Johnson intends for the UK to become even more of a deregulated market economy in stark contrast to European norms based on strong social and environmental protections.

I’m glad to see Michel Barnier continuing to be the head of negotiations with the UK, as he has shown a steadfast commitment to Ireland’s interests, and I have every confidence that this will remain the case.

From a Labour party perspective, we recognise the real economic harm and hardship that would follow from the UK leaving the EU at the end of 2020 without a deal, but we also recognise that a poor quality deal could undermine workers’ rights and environmental standards across Europe, which would be a totally unacceptable outcome.