This morning, Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission president nominee, made a speech to the Strasbourg parliament to try to convince at least 374 MEPs to vote her into the Brussels top job. A narrow victory, in which she depends on right-wing support, would give her a fragile mandate to steer the EU for the next five years.
As a woman and a European, I couldn’t help being moved listening to EU Commission presidential hopeful von der Leyen’s speech. Her commitment to the peace project and the possibility of the first woman president of the Commission were always going to be reasons to welcome her.
However, the speech also made clear that she has responded to the Green Wave in Europe and the urgency of the climate challenge, but only as far as her business paymasters will allow. Her political roots make it impossible for her to embrace the fundamental social and economic changes that could turn the sustainability transition into a celebration of diversity and equality.
To gain Green and progressive votes she would have needed an entirely different speech. Here’s what it might have looked like:
“Firstly, I’d like to start with what binds our Union together – the rule of law. This is why my first commitment as Commission president will be to bring in a new mechanism whereby independent experts permanently monitor all EU countries. Where there is evidence of breaches of the rule of law, strict sanctions will follow.
“Now to the most pressing issue facing our planet – the climate emergency. The EU must show global leadership to avert global temperature rises above 1.5C. Not only do I want to see the elimination of fossil fuels from Europe by 2050, but I want to increase our short-term ambition. We must aim for net-zero-carbon by 2030 based on a 65 per cent reduction in emissions across the bloc and significant investment in land-based carbon capture.
“A key element to achieving our emissions targets is a fair system for carbon pricing. I want to see fundamental reform of the Emission Trading System that ends free allowances. I will introduce an EU kerosene tax, VAT on flight tickets and an end to EU-funded investment in airport expansion. We will use revenues generated from aviation taxes to increase European investment in rail.
“I will also end all fossil fuels subsidies and commit to spend at least 50 per cent of the EU’s budget on climate related investments. We will also introduce a Green New Deal, which will tackle the climate emergency while creating hundreds of thousands of quality new jobs in the emerging green economy. Jobs in sectors like renewables, energy efficiency and public transport.
“Food and farming is also critical here. We need a new Common Agriculture Policy that makes direct payments conditional on taking measures against climate change and supporting biodiversity and higher animal welfare standards. We also need steep reductions in pesticide use and a sharp increase in organic farming.
“In addition, we must clean up our toxic air through a new clean air directive to stop the hundreds of thousands of premature deaths that occur every year through air pollution. The new directive will make sure that car manufacturers play their part in reducing emissions and particulates from their vehicles.
“And now to social justice. The huge gaps in wealth across our continent and EU citizens living in poverty are unacceptable. But there are means of addressing that inequality, such as the introduction of a Europe-wide minimum income scheme, ensuring salaries are set above the poverty line.
“Fixing our broken tax system is another key aspect in creating a more just Europe. That’s why I will ensure a minimum corporate tax rate of 18 per cent across the EU and a digital services tax to ensure tech giants pay their fair share.
“We also need transparency around corporate taxation and measures to ensure that EU countries cannot compete with each other in a race to the bottom. By denying them the tax revenue we need to fund our public services, we’re hurting European citizens.
“As a powerful trading bloc, the EU has the potential to use trade agreements to further environmental and social objectives. Too often, such agreements have done the exact opposite and have privileged corporations over people. So I pledge that all trade deals the EU negotiates with other countries will respect the Paris Climate Agreement and uphold the International Labour Authority’s standards on workers’ rights. I will stop any current trade deals that do not respect these criteria.
“One totally unacceptable aspect of trade is the arms trade. Europe must share its responsibility for the wars and suffering going on outside our borders. European countries and companies must be banned from selling arms to countries engaged in conflict zones.
“Finally, Europe must be seen as a place of sanctuary. So there must be safe and legal avenues for people wishing to apply for asylum in the EU. People are drowning every week trying to reach Europe. As president of the Commission, I would bring back a European search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea to prevent those deaths and save lives instead. Furthermore, there must be no criminalisation of the NGOs and individuals who are rescuing people at sea.
“This is how we will transform the EU over the next five years. This is how we will stand alongside citizens and their environment and against corporate power. This is how we will improve lives so the voices of nationalism, extremism and fascism are crushed. I urge you to vote for this positive agenda for change.”
Molly Scott Cato is Green Party MEP for the South West of England