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EU at loggerheads over 2050 zero carbon emissions target

Aris Oikonomou, AFP | France's President Emmanuel Macron speaks to the press as he arrives for an European Council Summit at The Europa Building in Brussels, on June 20, 2019.

A push by most European Union nations for the world's biggest economic bloc to go carbon-neutral by 2050 was dropped to a footnote at a summit on Thursday after fierce resistance from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

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France and Germany had led efforts for the 28-member EU to lead by example in setting an ambitious new climate goal ahead of U.N. climate talks in September that U.S. President Donald Trump has abandoned. But unanimity was needed, and last-ditch persuasion efforts in what diplomats described as "impassioned" talks that dragged on for four hours failed to ease fears among the central and eastern European states, including Estonia, that it would hurt economies like theirs dependent on nuclear power and coal.

EU leaders called on the European Investment Bank (EIB) to increase climate funding and acknowledged vast differences in the continent's energy mix, but Poland remained unmoved. "We need concrete things on the table," Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.

"What additional money could be allotted to Poland so that we do not end up in an offside trap?"

In an unusual move that nevertheless sends a strong signal to businesses, 24 of the EU leaders chose instead to reflect support for the mid-century goal as a footnote in their final statement: "For a large majority of member states, climate neutrality must be achieved by 2050."

Time is running out

Since French President Emmanuel Macron in March launched the push for the EU to absorb as much as it emits by 2050, along with four other nations, support had snowballed, showing the growing political prominence of the fight against global warming.

Addressing the holdouts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed to months of climate protests by youths that helped propel Green parties to their strongest showing yet in May's European Parliament elections. Macron, one diplomat said, argued that Europe needed to show it was credible on the world stage, rather than risk being eclipsed by China and India in global climate talks.

Although EU diplomats said they still believed the bloc would eventually agree to the goal at a later date, Thursday's summit was the last chance to do so before global climate talks in September at which U.N. negotiators hoped to secure higher pledges to do more to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on the bloc to aim for a 55% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2030, far more than the bloc's existing goal. The 2050 target was widely seen as paving the way for the EU to revise up the nearer-term target - although doing so has far less support as doubts remain over how to pay for the economic shift to low-carbon technology in big employment sectors such as transport, farming and building. To achieve net-zero emissions, the bloc would have to invest an additional 175 billion to 290 billion euros ($198 billion-327billion) per year in clean energy technology, according to an EU projection.

On the eve of the summit, Greenpeace activists projected the image of a bomb-shaped earth ready to explode on the facade of the building, warning "time was running out".

"With people on the streets demanding action and warnings from scientists that the window to respond is closing fast, our governments had a chance to lead from the front," Greenpeace EU climate policy adviser Sebastian Mang said.

"They blew it."

The 28 heads of government met for dinner after Brussels' main political factions refused to fall into line behind a single choice to head the European Commission.

The successor to Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the EU executive is the key leadership role in Brussels, and without a nominee the leaders were also not able to agree the broader package of appointments, forcing them to call a crisis summit for Sunday June 30

"The European Council has had a full discussion of nominations," summit host Donald Tusk, the president of the leaders' council, said. "There was no majority on any candidate.

"The European Council agreed that there has to be a package reflecting the diversity of the EU. We will meet again on June 30."

The new summit comes just two days before the new European Parliament begins its first session, and the leaders are determined to agree on key appointments before lawmakers choose their own speaker.

French President Emmanuel Macron said parliament's "lead candidate" process for choosing a Commission president is unworkable and that the 28 national leaders must decide.

"The names of the three 'lead candidates' have been ruled out," Macron said. "They were tested out by Donald Tusk and he concluded that there is no majority to back these names."

But Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the party political process, and noted that whichever name the leaders come up with will still have to be approved by a majority of MEPs in the assembly.

"Here it has emerged... that there is no majority for one of the top candidates of the political parties," she said. "We naturally want a joint solution with the parliament."

Hard man to replace

None of the leading names to have emerged during last month's election have won consensus among four main parliamentary parties to replace Juncker as president of the EU's executive arm.

"I note with satisfaction, amusement and, yes, pleasure that it seems it is not easy to replace me," Juncker joked.

Other jobs up for grabs include speaker of the European Parliament, which will sit for the first time on July 2, a replacement for Tusk as president of the European Council, and foreign policy chief.

National leaders want to control the process and dole out the most senior jobs in a way that balances men and women, east and west Europe, small countries and large.

But the results of May's European elections forced the main conservative, socialist, liberal and Green parliamentary blocs to form a majority coalition.

The parties, while working to draft a joint political programme, have not united behind a particular package of candidates.

German conservative MEP Manfred Weber, whose centre-right EPP group took the biggest single bloc of seats, failed to win over Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans' S&D or the liberal Renew Europe group, which has backed Danish commissioner Margrethe Vestager to take over from Juncker.

Prize posts

Whoever is eventually the nominee for the Commission presidency must win the backing of least 21 of the 28 EU leaders and a majority in the 751-member parliament.

According to three sources close to the negotiations, the leaders had been expected to agree that the EPP will be allowed to propose an alternative to Weber.

Renew Europe hopes to see a liberal replace Tusk as president of the European Council, and the socialists will provide a foreign policy chief.Finally, the Greens could share the job of presiding over the five-year parliament with the socialists, with each providing a speaker for two-and-a-half years.

One option for Commission president might be Europe's ambitious Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, a former French minister who is also a member of Merkel's EPP.

But the party is said to have other names up its sleeve and French and German sources agree that the chancellor is not ready to cede the prize to a Frenchman.

The six EU leaders invited to the G20 summit in Osaka on Friday and Saturday next week -- from France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands -- will continue the discussion there before returning to Brussels on July 30.

(REUTERS)

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