Behind the Scenes: Hard Target

Behind the Scenes: Hard Target


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

The European Union’s main way of achieving its various goals is by setting the 27 member countries targets that they must hit by a certain deadline. But the very philosophy of setting targets is a tricky beast to tame.

The logic is rather simple: EU priorities say, for example, that the bloc needs to use more renewable energy. So policymakers throw together a bunch of numbers, come up with targets for governments to hit, an agreement is brokered and its implemented.

By the deadline day, countries have either missed or exceeded their targets and are then either given a reprimand and told to meet it as soon as possible or, in some cases, fined for falling short.

But should targets be set so that member states can easily meet them or should the whole exercise be geared towards extracting the maximum potential possible out of each country? The EU’s current institutional makeup limits its options somewhat.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

This week, climate think-tank Ember released freshly crunched numbers that suggest the EU is going to get at least 45% of its energy from renewable sources by the time 2030 arrives.

That is based on data that shows a much higher-than-expected rollout of clean energy technologies like solar panels and ultra-efficient heatpumps. Policies take note, the market is hungry for more green power.

But the current renewables target is just 40% and although behind-doors negotiations are still ongoing, the maximum expected from those talks would be an increase to 45%, the lower end of Ember’s calculations.

Indeed, the final outcome might not even hit 45%. A small group of member states are not keen and a repeat of the last big round of talks in 2018, which settled on a split-the-difference outcome of 32.5%, might be repeated.

This would be a farcical result given this latest batch of data, what the International Energy Agency has been bullishly saying about clean power recently and the turbocharging effect Russia’s illegal Ukraine invasion has had on the sector.

The process is rather hamstrung by the current European Commission, which has right from the start branded itself as ‘geopolitical’ with an emphasis on the ‘political’. That has a marked impact on its work right across the board.

When the Commission proposes new legislation, standards, targets and so on – which must run the full gauntlet of seeking Parliament and Council approval – it does so with that political process in mind.

A fully technocratic institution would identify the problem, work out what is needed to fix it and publish a plan or strategy to that end, political ramifications be damned.

But this Commission wants to keep a political role for itself, in order to give its decisions more clout and make them more effective out there in the real world. That erodes its capacity to do what is required to some extent.

Take climate as an example again, given that it is the policy area that is going to define this administration’s legacy. 

Transport and agriculture are two of the trickiest emissions-producing sectors to get under control. Energy is easy, you build more renewables and burn less dinosaur bones, but tackling cars and cows is not straightforward at all.

The fictional technocratic Commission that this column is imagining would have said in its net-zero strategy that people need to eat less meat, drive fewer miles and walk or cycle more. Those are cheap, easy and effective options.

But the real-life EU executive branch could not do that because tabloids and even reputable newspapers would have published headlines saying ‘Brussels is taking away your car’ or ‘The EU will force you to go vegan’.

Governments with an axe to grind would also have weaponised perfectly reasonable policies and used them to paint Brussels as a meddler or overreaching itself. 

Such negative spin would have chipped away at its political clout and hurt its standing. So instead we are getting an electric car revolution, a bit of talk about cycling strategies and investments in cow-burp-busting feed.

The next Commission — due to be appointed in about 18 months — will not be any different, in fact it will probably aim to be even more political, undermining its capacity to set important targets.

NATO example

NATO, which is currently focusing a lot of its efforts on convincing Hungary and Türkiye to approve Finland and Sweden’s membership bids, sets targets of its own related to defence spending.

Arguably, they are proving to be far more effective than the philosophy deployed by the EU.

Neither targets are legally binding per se but the collective arrangement of the military alliance does give them a certain weight. One says 2% of annual GDP spend should go towards defence and the other says 20% of defence spending should be on equipment.

In previous years, the 2% benchmark was seen as merely aspirational. A convenient mantra for defence ministers to wave in the face of their finance counterparts when it came to setting national budgets.

But, again thanks to Vladimir Putin, 2% is starting to come good. Germany has announced billions in funding for its outdated armed forces and many other countries are doing the same.

It is unlikely that every country will get to 2% and those that do might not achieve it every year, but its ratcheting effect on national defence capacities promises to do exactly what NATO heads envisaged when they brokered the agreement back in 2006.

It is a delicate balance to strike. There is no point in a target that no one stands a chance of meeting or, conversely, of missing.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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