The European Green Deal is like a lift which could take us to a better future, with growth and prosperity and without endangering the environment, says Ukraine’s great friend Jerzy Buzek, former Prime Minister of Poland and President of the European Parliament, and a current Member of the European Parliament from the EPP group. According to Mr Buzek, if Ukraine decides to hop into that lift and follow on the EU transformative path, it will have the chance to modernise its economy and become more competitive on the global scale. “But getting on the lift is not enough; one has to push the floor button, implement the reforms, and make the change happen”, Buzek reiterates in an exclusive interview with Natalia Richardson for Brussels Ukraїna Review.
In December 2019, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed a new ambitious growth strategy – the European Green Deal– which aims to make the European Union climate-neutral by 2050. Then, at the beginning of 2020, the European Union and the whole world were hit by COVID 2019. Did the pandemic and the current economic crisis make the EU change its approach to the Green Deal?
No doubt, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is one of the biggest and most serious threats we have faced in recent decades. The European Union and the whole world stood in dismay when suddenly the virus not only attacked our respiratory systems, but also jeopardised the jobs of tens of millions of people, our freedom of movement and assembly, and our habits and lifestyle. We were deeply shocked, and this is fully understandable. Still, all this could be just a bitter foretaste of what might await us soon if we do not stop global warming: waves of fires and droughts, hundreds of thousands of premature deaths annually due to heat and air pollution. Scientists have been alarming us about this for years. And recently we have witnessed many of these threats which became reality. Just to give you a couple of examples: bushfires in Australia, where 500 million species were killed, and half a million people dying from smog and air pollution every year in Europe.
Vaccines for coronavirus have already been found; however, a vaccine for climate change neither exists today nor will appear in the future.
Do we have enough resources to combat these crises in parallel – COVID-19, together with economic crisis and global warming?
Even the most heroic fight against a huge global challenge – COVID-19 – in no way relieves us from our duty and responsibility to combat global warming.
In this very context, the European Green Deal – the Union’s new growth and development strategy and a tool to reach climate neutrality by 2050 – is becoming even more vital. This is why it has been placed in the heart of the EU Recovery Plan “Next Generation EU”. The proposed measures of the green recovery – a massive renovation wave of buildings and infrastructure, a more circular economy, rolling out renewable energy projects, cleaner transport and logistics and the Just Transition Fund – will not only repair the short-term damage from the crisis but also boost the European economy, make it more future-proof, sustainable, and competitive.
So, it is natural that the European Green Deal focuses mainly on the green recovery within EU borders. At the same time, we cannot neglect its wider goal: to promote the EU, which leads by example in the global fight against climate change. Do you think that the world would follow it?
It is indeed a historical program, our Apollo (Space Programme, which put man on the moon – ed.): both for the European Union and worldwide. If we succeed, we will not only contribute to protecting our planet and ensure a better future for our children and grandchildren, but first and foremost we will prove to the whole world that it is really possible to reconcile economic recovery and growth, technological and economic competitiveness, as well as to futureproof jobs creation with environment and climate protection. And then others will follow – I am sure they will. I am also sure that if we don’t succeed, the consequences could be dramatic: from citizens losing trust in the entire European project to a complete climate catastrophe. At lot is at stake, so we just must make it happen.
Speaking about the greening effect of the Deal which goes beyond the Union borders. How will the Green Deal influence EU-Ukraine relations?
Let me start by a brief introduction of the history of EU-Ukraine cooperation in energy and climate fields. In 2011, Ukraine joined the Energy Community and took on obligations to follow the rules of the EU internal energy market. Signed in 2016, the Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic Energy Partnership invigorated EU-Ukraine energy cooperation. Finally, the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (AA) – one of the most ambitious cooperation agreements in the Union’s history, which entered into force in 2017 – further reinforced Ukraine’s alignment with EU energy and climate policy. The Preamble mentions the parties’ commitment to implementing the Energy Community Treaty and the special chapters dedicated to energy and climate. And all this bilateral cooperation in energy and climate fields is carried out under a global “umbrella” of the common international commitments under the Paris Agreement, signed and ratified by both Ukraine and the EU.
Ukraine’s adherence to European and international norms in energy field stimulated modernisation of the sector. It also opened for Ukraine a door to the big European market, for example, allowing it to sell electricity abroad. We should not forget about another important aspect of such cooperation – energy security. When, in 2015, the country stopped buying gas from Russia, the EU legal framework served as a base for the agreements on reverse gas flow from Slovakia and Poland to Ukraine.
What does Ukraine still have to do to fully implement its commitments in the energy field under agreements with the EU?
I mentioned it on a few occasions, and would like to repeat now: for me, Ukraine – along with other Energy Community contracting parties – is de facto a part of the Energy Union. Thanks to the framework of these international agreements, Ukraine’s energy and climate commitments were very close to those of the EU. And here I would like to underline that “commitment” is not equal to “implementation”. Any reform, without a real change on the ground, transforms into a piece of paper. Implementation is a long and complicated road with many obstacles. Just to give you an example, it took us five years to build the Energy Union within the EU. Given different starting points, naturally Ukraine needs even more time and resources to reform its energy sector. The process is ongoing and we do see many achievements, like the Gas Law, but there is still a lot to be done, especially when it comes to implementation of legislation.
Besides energy, what areas are included in the European Green Deal?
For the EU, the EGD is not just another policy proposal, it is an overarching transformative agenda covering almost all aspects of citizens’ lives – from energy to agriculture, from circular economy to protecting biodiversity, from a new industry to a just transition. The EGD is like a kind of lift, which could take us to a future where innovative and sustainable solutions create growth and prosperity without endangering our environment. If Ukraine decides to embark on that lift and follow on the EU transformative path, it gets a chance to modernize its economy and become more competitive on the global scale. But getting on the lift is not enough; one has to push the floor button, implement the reforms and make the change happen.
The statement of the Ukrainian Government declaring its intention to join the EGD was welcomed at the recent EU-Ukraine Summit. The EU supports Ukraine’s ambition to approximate its policies and legislation with the European Green Deal and continue the established sectoral dialogues, not only in energy, but also agriculture, transport, industry, and construction.
Does the success of the EGD have any other benefits for the EU and Ukraine?
For the EU, Ukraine’s achievements in implementing the EGD commitments would be much more than an example of the structural transformations in the European Neighbourhood: it would be a great success story of efficient Green Deal diplomacy and an excellent example for the whole world. As I mentioned, Ukraine and the EU are both parties to the Paris Agreement. Undoubtedly, for Ukraine, meeting its EGD commitments will be a huge step towards implementing this very important global climate pact – the Paris agreement
What exactly does the European Green Deal mean for Ukraine? What impact could it have on its economy?
As with every new reform, implementation of the EGD in Ukraine could pose some threats, but first of all create opportunities. Paradoxically, Ukraine’s low current energy efficiency and the high carbon intensity of its economy could become an advantage under the EGD. On the one hand, it would be easier to reach the benchmarks in decarbonising or energy efficiency. On the other hand, it might attract international “green” funding. After all, energy efficiency, new technologies, and innovation in the Ukrainian economy will be very helpful for the country’s future growth and prosperity. As an excellent example, adopting the industrial visa-free regime would be a way facilitate the integration of Ukrainian businesses into the EU’s new industrial processes.
There are also opportunities in energy sector, for example, in hydrogen generation within the European Hydrogen Strategy, or batteries production within the European Battery Alliance. In agriculture, biomethane production from biowaste could be another sector with big potential for growth. Ukrainian organic farmers could find more clients in the big EU food market. The EGD could also become a key to unlocking EU financial and technical support instruments.
Are there any dangers if Ukraine decides not to go towards the green economy?
I should be honest with you about the potential dangers of the EGD for Ukraine if it is not implemented timely and properly. More stringent climate and environmental regulation could lead to restricted access of Ukrainian goods to the EU market. New non-tariff barriers for trade could become a real challenge for resource- and energy intensive branches, which account for a big part of the Ukrainian exports, like metallurgy, the energy sector, heavy chemicals, and machine building. The Ukrainian agricultural sector might face problems related to revised high environmental standards. Also, Ukrainian trucking companies might see a decrease in the number of contracts as the EU embarks on the ambitious goal of cutting emissions in the transport sector.
How can Ukraine avoid these threats, or at least better prepare to deal with them?
One cannot throw a seed in dry sand and expect a good harvest. Just the same, the EGD cannot be successful if not planted in the fertile soil of democracy and functioning institutions, including independent judiciary. Therefore, the continuation of Ukraine’s reform efforts – be it anti-corruption institutions or legislation in the renewables – is a precondition for the successful implementation of the EGD.
When it comes to concrete steps to mitigate the risks related to the EGD, anticipation and prevention are definitely better approaches than simple reaction. Let me repeat: the EGD is not only about energy or climate protection, it covers almost all sectors of economy. Therefore, it is important that the Ukrainian authorities approach it in a systemic way. “One step towards developing a wider implementation strategy for the EGD might involve preparing a comprehensive analysis of the Deal’s economic risks and benefits to be used as a basis for future dialogue with Ukraine’s EU counterparts. Another might be the appointment of a high governmental official to coordinate the EGD’s implementation in Ukraine.”
What is the timetable for preparation for the EGD?
The next year will be crucial for shaping the EGD. This is why it is important that Ukraine develops its position on the EGD and promotes it among its European partners. As we all know, deeds speak louder than the words. There is no better way to make Ukraine’s voice heard in the upcoming negotiations than delivering on the existing commitments in the Association Agreement, continuing reforms (in particular in the energy sector), and decarbonising the economy.
Another important role for the Ukrainian authorities, civil society, and media is informing Ukrainian businesses and citizens about the EGD. Awareness-raising campaigns will not only help Ukrainians better understand the EGD but could also allow business actors to incorporate new approaches to their planning and better prepare for future compliance of their goods and services with EU climate and environmental requirements.
Indeed, information plays key role in the success of any reform as it helps to promote social acceptance of new measures. Is there enough information about the EGD in the EU? Do European citizens support the EGD? Do they see it as path to a new sustainable way of life, or rather as a threat to the economy and to their jobs and wellbeing?
The profound change brought about by the new transformative agenda will create many opportunities for growth, innovation, and competitiveness. But at the same time, it will bring big challenges to the coal- and carbon intensive regions. As you rightly mentioned, we can succeed in transforming the economy only when all citizens are onboard – be they from post-industrial cities or from small towns dependent on the coal industry. Obviously, different regions have different starting points, which influences their level of acceptance of the Green Deal. It is our obligation and moral duty to help those for whom transition is more complicated, and not to leave them behind. How? By providing financial resources to support energy transition – from reskilling and upskilling workers to investments in gas or renewables. That’s exactly why in autumn 2018 – as chair of the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy Committee (ITRE) – I suggested the establishment of the new Just Energy Transition Fund (JTF). Thanks to support of my ITRE colleagues and the whole European Parliament, this proposal has become a part of the European Parliament’s official position on the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027. And, in May 2020, the new European Commission of President, Ursula von der Leyen, presented the Just Transition Fund proposal as one of the main parts of the Green Deal.
The legislation on the Just Transition Fund is now in the making. As JTF rapporteur in the ITRE committee, could you please give a short update on the current negotiations?
Following months of legislative work, in September the European Parliament has adopted its position on the JTF. As ITRE rapporteur, I participated in so-called trilogues – informal negotiations with the German Presidency representing the Council (EU Member States) and the European Commission. On 9 December we reached a compromise on the final text. This agreement will be voted in the plenary in January or February 2021 and then will become a law.
The Just Transition Fund will finance projects in EU Member States. Does the European Union financially support a just transition in Eastern Partnership countries? Can Ukraine count on the EU’s help in transforming and modernising its economy?
In May 2017, three years before the JTF was presented by the European Commission, we proposed – together with then-European Commission Vice President in charge of the Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič – the creation of a special Coal Regions in Transition Platform. It was a structural action financed from the EU budget which aimed to help these regions in their transformation and mitigate its social impact. This initiative has been running through 2018 and 2019. And last year, when tabling an amendment to increase the Platform’s budget in 2020, I also suggested widening its scope of actions as well as including the Western Balkan countries and Ukraine as possible beneficiaries. We managed to secure a record budget of €18 million and the opening of funds to Ukraine and the Western Balkans.
How exactly does the Platform help the coal regions in transition? Do Ukraine’s coal regions participate?
The Platform focuses on building capacity (providing needs-oriented technical assistance and advice in developing strategies and governance, project identification, and project design and development) and developing support materials (toolkits, guidelines and reports). It connects stakeholders through facilitating good practices, cooperation, and collective dialogue among regions and the wider stakeholder community. The Platform also organises high-level political events.
On 30 July 2020, I had the honour of speaking at the launch of the Just Transition Platform, financed from the EU Budget for 2020. I was happy to see that the Ukrainian regions established cooperation with the Platform and took an active part in the Coal Regions in Transition Virtual Week on 16-20 November 2020.
Do you think that the Ukrainian regions are lagging behind in energy transition? Could this be an obstacle for the modernisation of its economy?
Paradoxically, the challenges of the coal regions in transition are so different and so similar at the same time. We should take into account that in Belgium, France, or Germany the transition of the coal regions began 40 years ago. In Poland, we started not so long ago and are not even halfway through the process.
The Platform creates a forum for exchange – of information, data, and good practices – which help participants learn about the other and inspires them to propose their own solutions. I am sure that the German, Belgian, or Polish experience will be very useful for the Ukrainian regions, which are only at the beginning of this long and complicated road. As one says, “viam supervadet vadens”: the road is made by walking, just put one foot in front of the other.
Jerzy Buzek (born in 1940) is one of the prominent Polish politicians in modern history. Buzek was an activist of the anti-communist movements in Poland in the 1980s, including underground Solidarity trade union. He was elected to the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish Parliament, in 1997. From 1997 to 2001, Jerzy Buzek served as a Prime Minister of Poland, introducing sweeping reforms in pensions, healthcare, local and regional administration, education and mining. During his term in office, Poland acceded to NATO and made key steps towards its EU membership.
In 2004 he became a Member of the European Parliament, and in 2009 he was elected President of the European Parliament (for 2,5 years) with the largest ever majority of votes. Jerzy Buzek is the first person from the former Eastern Bloc to hold this position. Currently, he is a Polish MEP, Group of the European People’s Party. Buzek is a member of Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (he also chaired the committee in 2014-2019). Over the last 3 parliamentary terms, among others, Buzek lead the legislative work on different energy issues, security of gas supplies, etc. On top of that he deals with issues related to Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries. Also, Buzek actively participates in the discussion of the European Parliament on the situation in Belarus. The Parliament Magazine awarded him an annual award in 2020 in the Outstanding Achievement category.