When historians once look back on December 12, 2019, they may be speaking of the day Europe led the world and itself into the future-a future in which humanity could barely avert the worst of the climate crisis. The coral reefs may then be dead, various island states submerged in the sea and some coastal areas uninhabitable. But there was no global catastrophe.
This could happen if EU leaders agreed Thursday to make the EU carbon neutral by the year 2050. The Europeans should then no longer emit additional greenhouse gases - a gigantic task that poses "serious challenges", as diplomatically understated in the draft summit's final document.
In fact, Europeans would have to do no less than revamp their energy supply and also some of their previous way of life.
Xinhua / imago images
Ursula von der Leyen: Well-known fronts are irreconcilably opposed
It would be "a strong signal" for the EU to bring about the decision on climate neutrality, said Chancellor Angela Merkel before the summit began. "I hope that succeeds." But that is by no means certain. So far, 25 of the 28 heads of state and government are in favor. On the other side are Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. They fear the costs of structural change and only want to agree if the costs are more accurately known - and if the other EU countries promise them more money.
The West wants to save, the East demands even more
But the timing could hardly be less favorable, because such promises are currently impossible. The reason: At present, the tough negotiations on the next multiannual financial framework, MFR for short, are also the EU framework budget for the years 2021 to 2027. In addition to climate protection, it is the second major theme of the summit in Brussels.
The known fronts are still unforgiving. The European Commission has proposed spending a total of 1.135 trillion euros, which is 1.114 percent of EU economic output. The EU Parliament, which has to agree in the end, demands even more, namely 1.3 percent. Some EU countries have shot at these proposals. Others - such as Germany, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands - still want to spend only one percent.
Germany argues that its contributions are rising sharply anyway, because the country, as the largest contributor, has had to make up most of the British contributions lost by Brexit. While Berlin calculates on the basis of the Commission proposal that the German net contribution will rise to 30 billion euros annually, the EU Commission predicts an increase to "only" 23.5 billion euros. By comparison, Germany is currently transferring 13.5 billion euros more to Brussels than it gets back from various EU pots and programs.
Climate protection and budgetary debate block each other
An agreement is currently not in sight, which is also due to the fact that the EU budget should be modernized at the same time. In line with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, spending on climate protection or digitization is set to increase. However, if the budget volume does not rise to the sky, it would have to cut back on traditional EU spending, such as agriculture or regional aid.
In particular, Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European countries reject this. They are the main beneficiaries of EU funds, and their economies are still heavily dependent on them. Monthly talks between the ambassadors made no progress, as did the latest Finnish Presidency's latest proposal to increase the budget to 1.07 percent of EU economic output.
EU diplomats suspect that the debates on climate neutrality and the budget may block each other, so they warn against blending both issues. The next budget is for seven years, but the energy transformation is a task for decades, says a diplomat of a Western EU state. "You can not solve that with a few euros." It is therefore against to throw both topics in a pot.
In Warsaw, however, this message does not seem to arrive. The current level of EU subsidies must be maintained, according to the Polish counterproposal for the Summit Communiqué - regardless of additional funding for the costs of energy transition. This was "crucial" for poorer member states to achieve the goal of climate neutrality.
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis immediately opened another front by calling for nuclear power to be climate-friendly. "That's a clean energy with no emissions," said Babis. "I do not know why some countries have a problem with it." He should have meant so especially Germany and Austria.
Boris Johnson is represented at the summit - by the Council President
Failure by the Council to go beyond the goal of climate neutrality would be a first setback for the ambitious plans that Leyen presented on Wednesday. Accordingly, the new head of commission herself is involved in the negotiations. Among other things, she meets Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on Thursday.
Johanna Geron / REUTERS
Council President Charles Michel: Special summit in February?
Meanwhile, new European Council President Charles Michel is considering convening a special summit in February to force leaders to clarify matters. However, many EU diplomats consider the timing premature. Because only by the end of 2020, when the current financial framework expires, the pressure on all sides according to prevailing interpretation in Brussels is large enough to move. Only then will Brussels be in a position to give specific sums to Poland, Hungary and the Czechs in order to cushion the social costs of their demand for climate-friendly energy production.
One way or the other, the Germans are entitled to overspend. When it comes to the oath, so in the second half of 2020, of all things Germany has the rotating EU Council Presidency. Then it is doubly difficult to show self-defense.
After all, a weak consolation remains for the heads of state and government: Finally, a summit will not be overshadowed by Brexit. Although voted on Thursday in the UK, the exit of the British this time is at best a marginal issue at the summit. Only a short discussion of the election result is expected on Friday. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not coming to Brussels anyway - he has ceded his vote to Council President Michel.
In spirit, it seems, the British government has already left the EU. However, the amazing unity of the EU from the days of the Brexit negotiations should now disappear again.