Germany’s decision to put climate change at the top of its agenda for this week’s European summit came somewhat late in the day, having graduated from a mere afterthought as recently as last summer. Yet Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is no recent convert to the cause.
Leader of a country that has long taken the environment seriously – and sitting in a chancellery powered solely by renewable energy – Ms Merkel, as Helmut Kohl’s environment minister in the 1990s, was Germany’s lead negotiator for the Kyoto agreement.
Ms Merkel, a former physicist, betrays a characteristic penchant for debating the fine, often very fine, print of how Europe should go about saving the planet.
Thursday’s summit is not the only concern on her mind. She makes clear that her other goal for Germany’s six-month European Union presidency – relaunching the bloc’s troubled constitutional treaty – is far from forgotten.
She is guarded about the progress made since January in closing the gaps between member states’ conflicting views on the value of a revised treaty, following the 2005 referendum defeats on the original text in France and the Netherlands. And she admits that “difficult talks await us in June” when, Berlin hopes, EU leaders are due to agree core aspects of a revised accord.
The challenges facing Ms Merkel are amplified by changes elsewhere. France, traditionally Germany’s closest EU partner, is in the throes of a bitter presidential election campaign which has removed Paris, for now, as an active player. Tony Blair, UK prime minister, with whom Ms Merkel has a close and constructive working relationship, is nearing the end of his time in office.
Yet she has a plan for a step-by-step closing of the rift running across the EU. Good results at Thursday’s summit would be one building block, but a more important one is the “Berlin declaration” on March 25, when leaders meet in the German capital to celebrate the EU’s 50th birthday.
The declaration, she says, “will not seek to solve the question of the constitutional treaty that will be on the table in June”.
Instead, she wants the document to pave the way for agreement by stressing the common ground between all 27 member states. The text, she says, will be “readable” and inclusive, spelling out challenges rather than offering solutions. “The intention is to tell the people what we achieved together, what we can be proud of, and what challenges we face.”
The exercise is not without controversy. Ms Merkel hints she would like the euro to be mentioned alongside the EU’s other achievements – something Britain, and some other non-eurozone members, oppose.
Ms Merkel’s qualities as a long-term planner emerge, too, when she returns to climate change and lays out a roadmap, starting with the EU emissions pledges this week, to firm commitments in December at the United Nations climate conference in Bali, for a broader follow-up treaty to the Kyoto pact when it expires in 2012.
A post-Kyoto treaty would take another “one or two years”. In the meantime, “our G8 presidency and, in particular our outreach programme with China, India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa, can help us to sound out the general readiness to act”.
While noting “encouraging signals from the US and China”, she warns Beijing not to put climate change behind economic growth in its list of priorities. “The key now will be to decouple growth from energy consumption, which is something Europe has already achieved.”
A successor agreement to Kyoto should ideally set up regional schemes that would eventually force the world’s biggest polluters to put a single price on carbon emissions.
“Personally, I think tradeable emission certificates are the most sensible instrument to reduce CO2 emissions and a very market-friendly one,” she says. Inspiration for a global system could come from emissions trading schemes currently in operation in Europe and some US states.
She is confident today’s divisions are more likely to be overcome now that global warming is taken more seriously than a year ago.
“We made a choice: We could have muddled through and looked away because it was not clear what the cost [of climate change] was going to be. Instead, we decided to act under the assumption that whatever happens, the cost of inaction will be higher. This, as made clear by the Stern report [on the economic impact of climate change], is the main paradigm for change.”
Russia is the other great power under Ms Merkel’s critical gaze. Commenting on the keenness of Russian energy enterprises to acquire European companies, she demands “reciprocity” in EU-Russian relations. This applies to energy and other strategic industries, she argues.
“The EU will keep a close eye on whether Russia allows foreign investors to own majority control of strategic industrial assets, and that applies not just to the energy sector…. If only 20 per cent of such a [Russian] company can be in foreign hands, then we should consider the same approach.”
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