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Julian Priestley
Sir Julian Priestley, the Former Secretary General of the European Parliament, shares his views on what targets and changes could be achieved as a result of the climate change debate during the Climate Summit 2009. He will also explains how he rates the value of environmental topics during election campaigns and which steps the Politicians in Europe will have to take to counteract the effects of climate change.

Interview: Global Viewpoints -- INSEAD Special Series

Energy, Environment & The Impact on Business,
Part 3 in the Series
Sir Julian Priestley
Chairman of the Board of Directors of European Public Policy Advisers and Former Secretary General of the European Parliament

(Interview by David Nicholson)


1. Hello and welcome to Global Viewpoints, a partnership between INSEAD and BusinessWeek. My name’s David Nicholson and we’re talking about energy, the environment and the impact on business.

I’m very pleased today to be joined by Sir Julian Priestley who is the Chair of the Board of Directors of EPPA, which is the European Public Policy Advisors. He’s also the former General Secretary of the European Parliament, so someone who has had experience at the very highest level of European Politics dealing with the kind of issues that we want to know about today.

Julian thank you again for coming on the show today. We’re looking at the Copenhagen Conference that’s coming up in December. What do you think is practically achievable in terms of, you know real legislative change and targets? Where do you think we can expect to see some actual change?


Well I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by talking about actual change. Because my concern has always been that we’re very, very good at announcing ambitious targets and having a lot of breast beating about the threat to the planet. But we’re rather less good about actually doing anything about it. And it seems to me that there’s been a lot of steam lost over the last year or two.

No one now seriously disputes the science, except the President of the Czech Republic, and where we’re heading on those issues. But in terms of actually doing something about it, it seems to me that there’s some momentum lost and I think there are three reasons for that. The first is that the economic and financial crises has pushed the whole climate change, energy security, search for alternatives set of issues right down the agenda. And people are naturally more concerned, or at least it’s understandable that they’re more concerned about their immediate job prospects than they are about what might happen to people living in coastal areas in 20 years time and having to be displaced.

The second thing is that we see that whereas people support broadly and in theory, the ‘Save the Planet’ agenda. When it comes down to it, when it comes to specific measures, they see all the inconvenience that those proposals may cause themselves. And this, in turn, means that legislators and decision makers have been very nervous about taking decisions which might upset people - - whether it’s their car, whether it’s the number of times that they go on holiday by airplane, whether it’s how they organise their rubbish, whether it’s where they can park etc - - the actual number of measures taken is rather timid and rather limited.

And I think as a result of both the economic crisis and to a certain extent the lack of support, we’ve seen that there’s beginning now to be a huge squeeze on public expenditure in practically every developed country in the world. The whole debate about the balance between expenditure and revenue is wide open at the moment. And yes there’s some argument going on as to whether or not you should carry on with fiscal stimulus now or whether you should slow down the pace. But it’s clear that public expenditure will be under scrutiny. And whereas a lot of people talk about ringfencing health and ring-fencing education, I don’t hear much about ring-fencing research and development and support for innovation. And I think there’s concern there that some of the budgets necessary for research, for alternatives to traditional energy supply, that may be sacrificed or the effort reduced in this desire to drive down public expenditure.

Now if I could just mention some evidence from my concerns. It seems to me that if you look at the elections that have taken place over the last two to three years. Whereas if you take the French Presidential Election in 2007 the environment played a very big role. And both President Sarkozy and Madame Royal made huge efforts to project ambitious measures on the environment, in part because they were concerned about the success of potential environmental candidates. And they made some pretty big promises.

But if you look at the actual results and what came out of the round tables that President Sarkozy organised after the elections, and which seems now to have been reduced to this whole question of a rather limited carbon tax, which is widely opposed as a sort of stealth tax by many people. It seems that there’s been a lot of steam there.

We had the German Elections just two weeks ago. Did environmental, ecological issues figure largely in those elections? If they did, I didn’t see it. Just had elections in Greece and in Portugal, again I think the environmental issues were on the back foot. The European Elections in June of this year. Yes actually the Greens didn’t do too badly but actually they rather concentrated on matters which weren’t what I would call specifically or traditionally green issues and more general economic and social questions. So I think there has been a stepping back.

I noticed that in the UK for example, the Leader of the Conservative Party made great play after his election about ‘the greening of the blue party’. But actually, when we look at the attempt first of all to raise some issues like air travel and then to step back from it. And I don’t see it in the latest list of pledges made by the Conservatives. And I don’t hear from any of the political parties in the United Kingdom that they’re pushing for exempting research and development, particularly into clean technologies. Exempting them from the cuts that inevitably are going to come in the public sector.

So I think there’s a, if you like, a decline in some of the push. Now in Copenhagen it’s hoped that there will be an agreement. No agreement at all would be disastrous. And it’s hoped that it will be an ambitious level of agreement for cutting carbon emissions over the next 20 to 50 years. But the question I think remains is what happens then if you get that agreement? Because it’ll be delivery which is absolutely determinant and the record is not very good.

One has to bear in mind as well that the election of President Obama hasn’t in itself made one excessively confident about his ability to deliver afterwards, the legislation that will have to get through Congress which will, I think remain a major obstacle for him in getting anything meaningful through.

2. Well one of the issues is that green issues, as an electoral weapon are not powerful. And green parties don’t tend to get elected to national governments. And when it does come to elections green issues are marginalised. Whereas when you have an event like Copenhagen if you have effective Chairmanship then you can persuade people for the good of the planet or for the good of international relations that they should take steps ignoring effectively their national electorates.

Now you must have had a lot of experience in that role as Secretary General of the European Parliament in trying to bring diverse points of view together and getting people to take these decisions even though they might not be able to get them past their own electorates. You’ve written a book called Six Battles which Shaped Europe’s Parliament. In this case, what do you think are the arguments that can be used for the national governments themselves which wouldn’t necessarily play well at home?


First of all the people who will meet in Copenhagen - - and it’ll be interesting to see whether the people who come to Copenhagen are as illustrious as the people who came to Copenhagen when it was discussing the siting of the next Olympics. I mean the people there will be on the whole Ministers but I hope there will be a positive response to the British Prime Minister’s call that it should be heads of government who will be there. Because delegated Ministers, even powerful Ministers don’t have the same clout as heads of government.

The second thing is that, yes I think they will be confronted with their responsibilities but they will, all of them, be mindful of how far they can push - not simply their electorates - because whatever emerges from Copenhagen isn’t immediately subjected to public approval, but also what they can get through their legislatures. And that’ll be Obama’s main concern. He’s had a pretty difficult experience so far over his Healthcare Reforms which were the absolute centre piece of his programme. And where he could reasonably have expected, because public opinion was actually, the majority of public opinion was on his side. But it appears that special interest has been working very effectively to undermine what on paper is a fairly convincing majority within Congress.

Now you can imagine what special interest might do on the whole question of energy supply, energy security and environment when it comes to Congressional examination of any measures that are thrown up in Copenhagen. So that’s the constraints that they’re under. On the other hand, leadership is about pushing arguments forward and not being simply reactive.

And it seems to me that the emphasis on the absolutely incontrovertible evidence that there now is about the catastrophic effects of climate change. Where the only serious question that one can ask is whether the targets that are being talked about in Copenhagen will do the job should be a very powerful extra rhetorical support for the position taken by Presidents like Obama and leaders like Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel.

3. Do you think that they can, Merkel for example, with a new mandate should she be able to push things through faster and more effectively than someone like Obama, with his travails over Healthcare?

I think that the Europeans on the whole start with an advantage that the public positions of the main political parties in the European Union are settled and are in favour of strong action. Now, as I’ve said before, it’s a rhetorical commitment and when it comes down to it, we can have some doubts as to their ability to see through. But I think that Merkel and Sarkozy and Brown and the other European leaders have a more comfortable position domestically on these issues than their counterparts in the United States and, indeed, in the emerging economic super powers.

4. That’s one of the issues that has been raised before is that actually Europe isn’t so much at stake here. We are settled in our view that things should be done and we’re ready to do it. We, in fact in many cases, we are already taking the necessary action.

It’s about Asia and it’s about the States. Now balancing those two viewpoints, is what the Asian and emerging nations are prepared to do to reduce their own level of growth and what America can get through its legislature. Now as somebody who’s been in this Chairmanship role, how would you encourage those two sides to come closer together?


Well I think they’ve got to have a clearer understanding. That unless they take on board the main concern of the other side, then they’re not going to make much progress. On the one hand, any energy policy breakthrough at Copenhagen, any serious action against climate change has to involve China, India, Brazil and the faster developing economies in the South and in the East.

And they cannot just hide behind the argument “Well it’s you, the developed countries who have brought the planet to the point of wrecking, why should we have to pay for it?” On the other hand the Europeans and the Americans have to recognise that, yes the new developing countries do have a point. That it’s their ability to catch up which could be, I don’t think jeopardised, but which could be slowed down by the sudden imposition of measures limiting emissions, which will have a very serious effect on them. And I think the Europeans have to recognize that the majority of energy consumption, even in the Year 2025, even in the Year 2050, will still be going to those who are currently classified as ‘developed countries’. So they can’t shuffle off the responsibility.

Now what does that mean in practice? I think it means a balance. A balance in terms of the limit of emissions. And it means I think financial and technical help for those countries who are not yet developed countries and who need to make the gap. On top of it, Europe has to continue to lead by example, not just at Copenhagen but up to Copenhagen and beyond. And yes there are good things.

You’re right in some senses that Europe leads the way. But many of the measures that are being taken at the moment are good and sound but they’re a bit like a pepper pot, they’re scattered. They’re sometimes a bit timid and in many cases will take a lot of time. Let me give you just a couple of examples.

The French have announced an important initiative on the green car. I think the announcement came last week. Big public investment for two million green cars in the next ten years, i.e., electric, not just hybrid, but electric cars with all the infrastructure necessary for recharging etc. Excellent initiative but we’re talking about ten years. And we’re talking at the end of the day of something like maximum 10% of the car pool in France.

The UK has at long last announced its espousal for high speed trains. At the moment the UK has, I think I’m right in saying, only about one thousandth of the fast track train network that exists in Spain. But, again, the announcement made by the Transport Department in London is for a high speed train project - - it’ll take at least ten years, it’ll be just for that ten years just one line from London to Scotland. And it will require an all party agreement, for the understandable reason that because we’re talking about such length of time. There’s no point in having something launched now which in a few months time could be changed with a change of government.

So these are really good measures but they’re a bit piecemeal and they are involving very long lead times. Where for example is the European action on speed limits? I mean wouldn’t that be something which would have immediate effects on emissions. If people followed the example that’s being led in France now, but only in one region, in the Lorraine region to reduce the top speed limit from 130 kilometres to 110 kilometres. Now that was generalised and became more or less the European approach. That would be something to put on the table.

Because our partners - it’s all about confidence building – our partners need to be convinced that Europe’s rhetorical leadership is matched by concrete measures that are really paving the way.

5. Well as someone who enjoys driving at least 130 kilometres through the streets and alleys of France I wouldn’t be so pleased myself. But there you are, that’s a localised response from, you know somebody who…

Yeah let me just say…our discussion is not about road safety but ever since the French started applying their - - and they apply it rather strictly their speed limits - - so you’ve been lucky if you’ve escaped so far, the number of deaths on French roads has tumbled dramatically. So a major change. But there’s some sign now that people are getting a bit blasé about it.

But more importantly than that, that’s just an example. There are many things that are going on in the good practice in terms of heavy investment in renewables in places like Spain and in Scandinavia. Excellent local schemes in Germany for local energy generation and the rest of it. But it’s not sort of put together. We’re not getting the collective approach and push from it that I think that is required. And which will be very helpful to us in arguing our case at Copenhagen.

6. Well as Chairman of the Board of Directors of EPPA, which is a public affairs consultancy, you perhaps have the perception of how this issue could be used either as a negative - we have to stop doing such and such - or as a positive. That adopting these energy efficient measures can be a way to get ourselves out of the recession and adopting electric cars for example. Massive new industry with great growth potential for exports and so on. I mean do you see signs that enough people are approaching the subject in that way?

First of all, it’s encouraging the major car producers nationally are now thinking very seriously about that sort of issue. One of my concerns is that you can get public opinion on your side. And at the end of the day this does require public opinion to be on your side, if you are credible and if you are realistic. And I think the public opinion gets only really part of the picture when measures are taken which they don’t like.

Now they don’t like the fact that they’re now facing extra constraints about the way that their rubbish is put out. And I come from, I live in Waterloo in Belgium which has now quite strict rules about what you can put out and when. And people won’t take your rubbish away unless you comply strictly with that, which is good, but it’s an extra little inconvenience to life. But if you like there’s not much of a link between the dialogue or the explanation for that and the actual measure.

Secondly, it seems to me that people want some kind of roadmap. That if we’re, they want to know that this particular set of measures is what is required or they’ll be further measures along the line that will also affect them, they may not like. But they’ll at least be able to understand it if it’s part of a single narrative. And at the moment what happens is a lot of measures are taken almost at random and people don’t really see where they’re going, don’t always see the relevance of them, and wonder what’s going to hit them next.

And it’s that, I think which saps or which undermines to a certain extent public support.

7. What would you propose? How can we be more joined up in our thinking?

Well I think that what is absolutely required is as usual our old friend, political leadership. And it seems to me that the political leaders should place these questions of explaining to people where we’re going and how we reach those objectives at the centre of their discourse.

Now doubtless some of their spin doctors and advisors will be saying “Oh don’t touch it. It’s…you’ll bore the electorate or you’ll annoy the electorate.” Or whatever. But it seems to me that, if you like that’s the responsibility of leadership to explain and to seek to galvanise public support.

My sentiment was that a couple of years ago, two or three years ago there was genuine traction behind the sort of ‘save the planet’ agenda. That it was enthusiasm making for young people and for many others. And that some of the energy paradoxically has gone out of it now. And part of that is obviously the economic crisis.

How do you address that? By linking the two. First of all by saying “You think we’ve gone through an economic crisis you wait unless we do something about this.” But also by saying, as you pointed out in your question, “The opportunities there are on offer if we do things.” If we seriously stick to strong targets for wind, photovoltaic solar energy, here and elsewhere, those will be creating jobs. Now it isn’t always going to be the case that a decision in the UK to have more windmills necessarily means that jobs are going to be created in the UK to build those windmills. But overall you can create a positive spiral. And in terms of the internal market generally, it will be positive for all those who participate in it.

And it’s the job creation aspect which seems to me to be very promising, providing again you can make it credible. And one of the problems there again is there’s not an immediacy in terms of an effect on employment. You can’t say “We will deal with the current two and a half million unemployed in the UK by switching to greater wind energy.” Because actually the lead times are so great, also in terms of the whole procedural issues of planning and environmental impact assessments and the rest of it.

But on the other hand, if you don’t start now you won’t make any progress at all. And it is true that in quite a few Member States these - and I’m thinking particularly in Scandinavia and Spain – the economic activity around alternative energies is beginning to have an important effect.

8. I’m curious about something that happened just the other day. You’ve been involved in the Irish Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Now it’s only a matter of a few months ago that they completely dismissed that Treaty and refused to ratify it. And then the other day they’ve pushed it through and everyone seems very happy with it. Now that’s a massive turnaround isn’t it? And now of course it can be explained by the Irish economy having suffered grievously in the past few months. But are there other factors at work?

I think there are two other factors at work. One is that there was a proper ‘Yes Campaign’ led by a former EP President, Pat Cox. And it was an all party and no party campaign. And it was so much more effective than the rather faltering efforts made a year ago. So at the end of the day, everybody knew. Or at least everybody who wished to know had an idea as to what was in this Treaty and what was not in it.

And the second thing was that quite frankly the stories that were being peddled by some of the anti-European groups were so far fetched, and were so ridiculous that it began to undermine the credibility of the whole campaign against it. In a way, in the much shorter campaign in 2008 didn’t allow all those issues to be worked through. This was a much more sustained campaign which started months ago and was a proper campaign this time. And I think it paid off.

I mean let’s not try to sort of see these referendums, one cancelling the other out. I mean the first campaign there was a big upset because before we were expecting a ‘yes’ and they got a ‘no’. This time they got a two-thirds majority ‘yes campaign’. Now I think it’s very difficult to imagine any campaign getting a two-thirds majority for something at the moment. I mean this was a hugely successful effort and a green light, a green light for issues.

9. Well are there lessons to be learnt by the green campaigners of how to influence public opinion, in such a dramatic way?

Well I think that the first thing is leadership. Second thing is the importance of local organisation. And I think that campaigners on any issue now shouldn’t hide behind what is I think an absolutely false deduction made from the Obama Campaign, which is that you fight all elections on internet. Yes, internet is an incredibly important part of the political dialogue. But actually one of the reasons why Obama’s campaign was so successful, to get first of all the nominations for the Democrats and then the Presidency was the strength of local campaigning. And it’s the local campaigning by local environment groups which can help to turn things round. And one can see that in local communities when the sheer fire power of local organisations on issues, not necessarily for political parties but on issues - - whether it be saving the Post Offices or whatever. That’s the way to get people mobilised and that’s the way to make politicians and national leaders sit up and listen.

Sir Julian thank you very much indeed for spending the time with us today. That was extremely helpful and look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
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