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Portugal takes over the EU presidency from Germany: time to deliver a green recovery

While the policy agenda set by Germany’s presidency of the EU was highly affected by the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Portugal’s incumbent presidency will hopefully see Europe emerge from this crisis. This new phase may provide a unique opportunity for a recovery plan which keeps the European Green Deal at its heart.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has evaluated the environmental performance of the German presidency of the European Union (July-December 2020) and has issued 10 Green Tests for the Portuguese handover (January-June 2021).

The EU begins 2021 with hope. With the roll-out of massive vaccination programmes, the EU institutions can take up priorities that had been sidelined by the uncontrolled spread of the second wave of the pandemic.

Portugal, which has taken over the EU presidency on 1 January, explicitly recognises this new context in its priorities, putting a ‘Green and Resilient Europe’ at the centre of the recovery and advocating for a coherent approach which prioritises a Green, Social, Digital and Global Europe. 

Given the growing list of legislative files that involve green policies, and despite the diplomatic and logistical challenges that the Portuguese face, the expectations are high. 

The EEB, building on consultation processes with its over 160 members, has delivered a series of specific asks spanning across all environmental areas to the EU presidency trio of Germany, Portugal and Slovenia (2020 – 2021). But to understand the challenges ahead, let’s first have a look at the legacy left behind by the German presidency.

Germany: A missed opportunity

Germany had the difficult task of running its Council presidency during the world’s worst public health emergency in recent history. However, despite initial efforts, the government could have done more to address the ongoing climate and biodiversity crises, campaigners said.

“Under Germany’s presidency, important agreements were reached on the budget, recovery fund, biodiversity, and digitalisation, but weak commitment on climate, disappointing on Aarhus and very poor on agriculture”, pointed out Jeremy Wates, the EEB Secretary General, in the assessment of the German EU presidency’s environmental performance.

For example, an agreement to slash emissions by 55% over the next decade was highly criticised by campaigners who said the target was not sufficient to avoid catastrophic heating. 

Notably, the Germans also failed to move forward in the negotiations to reform Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is currently one of the biggest threats to nature and climate action. According to the EEB’s assessment, the presidency was reluctant to endorse sustainability targets for its Farm to Fork strategy, and failed to align the CAP with the Green Deal.

On a positive note, the German presidency promoted the European Green Deal as an integral part of its crisis response. It delivered the EU’s greenest budget ever, together with its Recovery and Resilience Facility, and also managed to extend it to the EU’s candidate countries. The EEB also praised efforts to promote wellbeing and social justice, addressing the environmental discrimination of Roma communities and engaging with youth representatives.

Portugal: Time to deliver

While Germany’s slogan was “Together for Europe’s recovery”, the Portuguese motto is a clearer call for action: “Time to deliver: a fair, green, digital recovery.”

Over the next six months, the Council’s input and support will be sought on key regulations for the green recovery roadmap. Amongst the hottest files on the agenda are Europe’s Batteries Directive, the Waste Shipment Regulation, the Aarhus Regulation, the 8th Environment Action Programme, and a framework to define sustainable corporate governance.

On the own priorities of the Portuguese agenda, the government will seek approval of two  relevant milestones of the European Green Deal: the National Recovery and Resilience Plans and the European Climate Law, which would make the EU’s climate targets – including the proposed 55% for emissions reduction – irreversible. Negotiations are expected to end before July.

“I’m quite sure that during the presidency we will have the (climate) law approved. It’s our big priority for the semester,” said João Pedro Matos Fernandes, the Portuguese Minister for Environment and Climate Action.

Key legislative packages will also be launched during its mandate – notably the Fit-for-55 Climate Package and the Mobility Package – while new strategies will be on the agenda. These include the European Commission’s recently published Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, an updated Industrial Strategy for Europe, the EU Climate Adaptation Strategy, the Soil Strategy and the EU Forest Strategy, for which the presidency will start preparing a response. 

Portugal will also lead the EU during a changing global political context, which welcomes a more climate and environment-friendly US administration, but also see the UK outside the EU with a still unclear policy on environmental standards and deregulation, Wates noted.

Ten Green Tests to make the difference

The EEB proposes the following Ten Green Tests to support a successful Portuguese presidency that can take the EU several steps forward in the transition to living within the limits of our one planet.

The EEB will monitor Portugal’s performance along these 10 axes and issue an assessment in June 2021, at the end of the six-month period.

The 10 tests for the Potuguese presidency are:

  1. Drive a just transition to a sustainable and resilient Europe
  2. Channel the EU’s Recovery Package and budget towards a green transition
  3. Tackle the climate emergency and promote sustainable mobility
  4. Reverse the dramatic loss of biodiversity on land and water
  5. Initiate a transition towards sustainable food and agriculture
  6. Promote a shift towards zero pollution
  7. Clean up industrial production: towards a circular, decarbonised and zero pollution industry
  8. Set in motion an ambitious chemicals strategy for sustainability
  9. Strengthen accountability and the rule of law
  10. Promote European solidarity, wellbeing and social and environmental justice