East-West row upsets EU’s grand climate plan

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic clashed with Western European nations on Thursday over the EU’s bold new push for climate neutrality by 2050, demanding funds for their energy transition to lower emissions, and a role for nuclear power.

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly near the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 4, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The standoff at a summit of leaders in Brussels came just a day after the bloc’s new executive unveiled a 100-billion-euro plan for net-zero gas emissions by mid-century, declaring it the EU’s “man on the moon moment”.

“It’s not going well. It’s going to be a long night,” said an EU diplomat, four hours after the 27 leaders had gathered.

With floods, fires and droughts wrecking lives around the world, Greenpeace climate activists had earlier in the day scaled the glass-fronted Europa building where the leaders meet, unfurling banners reading “Climate Emergency”, firing off red flares and blaring fire alarm sirens.

The summit is the first since Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen took office as the new head of the European Commission, and a failure to agree on the Green Deal, her biggest initiative, would be a setback for the new leadership.

“We can’t announce a Green Deal yesterday and have nothing today. We’ll spend as much time as necessary on it,” said a French official.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban set the tone ahead of the two-day talks, insisting that the less affluent countries of eastern Europe must get generous and precise financial guarantees for their transition away from fossil fuels.

“We cannot allow Brussels bureaucrats to have poor people and poor countries to pay the costs of the fight against climate change,” Orban said.

However, as the evening went on, the main holdouts were the Czechs and Poles.

Prague’s demand that it should be able to use EU money to build nuclear power plans on its soil in the future ran into firm opposition from Austria, Germany and Luxembourg. Poland wanted firm guarantees that EU climate investment would not crowd out the bloc’s development aid for its poorer peers.

“It is important to have certainty that nobody will stop us in the construction of nuclear power units,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis told reporters. “We have to have electricity for people, for firms, and heating.”

Another EU diplomat said the leaders may fudge wording of their conclusions on the energy mix to ensure a deal is reached, and leave the details to technical talks in the future.

THORNY BUDGET DEBATE

The Czech Republic generates about half of its electricity from coal and wants to phase most of it out over the next 20 years, replacing part of it with new nuclear power plants.

Hungary relies on nuclear power for about a third of its energy needs, with coal making up less than 15% of its energy mix. It wants to abolish coal by 2030 and replace it with a mix of nuclear, gas, renewables and energy imports.

Poland produces some 80% of its power from coal and discussions about introducing nuclear energy have not yet been settled, partly due to high costs.

French President Emmanuel Macron said those countries may need to have nuclear in their future energy mix. While some countries opposed this, he was confident they could reach an agreement: “We just need to find the right mechanisms, be trustworthy, allow predictability, but we can do it.”

A third EU diplomat estimated chances for an agreement at the summit – which must be unanimous – at 50/50, while another added that some countries have reservations about the strain that a 100 billion euros price tag might put on their economies.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The climate discussion feeds into another tricky debate, over the next long-term budget, where no agreement is expected after a latest proposal to cap joint spending at 1.087 trillion euros for 2021-27 was rejected by both the frugal camp and those seeking a heavier outlay.

“Some people want to pay less, some people want to get more, others to do new things,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. “I wasn’t the best at mathematics but this, I think, is not going to add up.”

Reporting by Michel Rose, Marine Strauss, Marton Dunai, Jason Hovet, Jonas Ekblom, Philip Blenkinsop, John Chalmers, Andreas Rinke, Gabriela Baczynska, Jan Strupczewski, Marcin Goclowski, Francesco Guarascio and Jan Lopatka, Writing by John Chalmers and Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Toby Chopra

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