By Fabio Seferi and Giorgia Miccoli, Hybrid Neighbourhood Analysis Centre

The climate emergency has conquered the first spots in the political agenda of governments and international organisations. With the European (Commission’s) Green Deal, standards and long term goals are set not only for Europe but also for the international community as a whole. Central and Eastern Europe is requested to increase the speed of their slow transformation, yet it is one of the regions that will mostly be impacted by these ongoing green transition. Many the fields in which this change will show its effects: security, agriculture, economy, employment and so on. In the second episode of HNAC’s Directors’ Cut, Giorgia Miccoli and Fabio Seferi will dig into this challenge, reading between the lines of what seems to be another bloody confrontation between western and eastern Europe.

Fabio Seferi: When talking about the green transition, one of the first issues that pop to mind is health. Older (mis-)conceptions of climate change/emergency were based on sudden apocalyptic scenarios. The threat, however, is multifaceted. It concerns many aspects of human lives, such as air, soil and water quality. Public health and safety – i.e. basic human survival – are already a concern for citizens across Central-Eastern Europe. The most recent case is just a couple of weeks old. Citizens gathered in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to protest for very high levels of air pollution in the city. In the past weeks, air pollution surpassed EU safety norms for several times. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a noteworthy case since it is one of the Central-Eastern Europe (CEE) countries that is most dependent on coal plants for electricity production. Coal-generated energy is one of the most polluting types of power production. However, many recent projects for the opening of new coal plants have seen the light in the country – supported by Chinese investments. Not quite an optimistic trend for a green transition.

Giorgia Miccoli: A second key element I would take into consideration is inclusion. The green transition, as imagined by the newly established European Commission, will impact all sectors and regions in Europe and beyond. To support this transition, leaving no-one behind, the EC has presented a proposal for a Just Transition Mechanism. Part of this mechanism, the Just Transition Fund will intervene to ensure support to the regions and sectors most affected by this transition. With little surprise, Poland is expected to receive more than any other country, followed by Germany, Romania, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. This notwithstanding, the effects that the green transition is going to have on the economies of EU and non-EU countries in Central and Eastern Europe is of utmost importance. Not only unemployment will sharply raise in the short run, but intensive upskilling and reskilling of workers might take more time than expected to absorb the costs and give satisfying results. I tend to say that this is one of the biggest challenges of this transformation, that if not managed correctly will impact severely the economic conditions of the same countries the EU is planning to carry on board.

FS: I agree on the challenges that the green transformation will bring along. However, on the brighter side, the European Commission could also foster socio-political change in Central-Eastern Europe through this programme. This could be done not only by deeply transforming the economic landscape of these countries but also by pushing forward a prosperous model of public intervention. As you noted before, there will be possible (work) market distortions, which have to be dealt with by the Commission. That is why a sound and elaborate European Green Deal could ideally become the most successful public policy towards Central-Eastern European countries, bringing both economic progress, and better climate and environment. If anything, it remains to be seen how much of the promised budget of 1 trillion euros for 10 years will be devolved to curb the possible distortions.

GM: Surely the ambitions of the EC include taking as many actors on board as possible in this green transformation. Indeed, a green agenda for the Western Balkans has been promised by the Green Deal and will be published before the end of the year. It is still unsure, however, what it will entail and if it will be connected to the enlargement policy. The eastern neighbourhood will play a crucial role in this, through environment, energy and climate partnership, sponsored by the EU. This is where a new scenario of cooperation will also arise and be challenged at the same time. It will be in the hands of the Union, but also of the governments of these countries to demonstrate they can cooperate and promote positive change together.

FS: It is precisely this one of the key points in play for a common green transition. The new global challenges cannot be faced individually by each country. They need a common and concerted effort not only at the state level but also at the sub- and supra-national one. It is only by such a common effort that a comprehensive and fair green transition can be achieved without leaving any country behind and by dismantling polluting means of production of possible free-riders. However, problems may arise in regions – such as the already mentioned Western Balkans – where equal cooperation is hardly achievable by all the actors involved. It remains to be seen which phenomenon will affect the other: i.e. if past differences and frictions will disable the possibility of common development or if new swathes of cooperation will help in defusing old hostilities.

GM: The success of such cooperation will stem from the EU’s ability to set the ground for a comprehensive change. It is important to let key countries in this transformation, like the Western Balkans, have a voice in the decision making. This would allow a smoother development of a complex process. What the green transformation aims to achieve is not only a greener and less polluted environment but also a more socially just governance. This could be a decisive challenge for some countries in central and eastern Europe. Not only those directly involved in the process but also the EU’s eastern neighbours, whose impact of the old continent’s climate neutrality goals is extremely intense, would be required to foster change at home.

The ambitiousness of the European Green Deal is unquestionable. What will be achieved in the next four years will depend on the EC’s potential to act as a geopolitical power, as announced in the last pages of the December Communication. A new moment for cooperation is dawning and it will be up to the EU to allow free entrance to those willing to come onboard. At the same time, efforts will be equally required from all the Central and Eastern European countries, heavily relying on carbon fuel.