Despite the lack of press coverage, yesterday was actually a huge day for the European Union. The reason being that the union agreed a deal to link the EU Emissions Trading Scheme with Australia's new carbon market system
. The pact will mean that the same carbon price will now cover 530 million people.
But more than that, the agreement is a symbol of the EU's intention to cement its position as a global actor on the world stage. This tactic is especially prominent when it comes to environmental issues. The green agenda was an area where Europe previously led, but recently lost its way due to a global focus on how the BRICS –Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – will tackle climate change.
Already though, the union has signed 'multilateral environmental agreements' on behalf of member states – meaning it is ultimately responsible, rather than sovereign countries, for a whole raft of green legislation. Climate change could indeed be an important foreign policy issue for the EU – with future water, food and oil shortages having the potential to lead to war and mass migration from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere. Esteemed academic Hermann Ott even claims: "Climate policy, in short, equals security and peace politics."
And looking back, there is a consensus that the United States withdrawal as an environmental leader, during the 1990s, allowed the more pluralist EU to craft for itself a new identity as a global actor. The union took charge of the agenda to tackle climate change by championing the Kyoto Protocol through soft-power mechanisms including environmental diplomacy, the neighbourhood policy, conditionality, the European Burden Sharing Agreement, Europeanisation, the spreading of EU norms and the environmental acquis. In fact, Eurobarometer data shows us that public opinion is favourable on environmental issues being tackled at the supranational level - rather than by member states individually. The deal with Australia to expand the EU carbon market, though, takes us into unchartered territory.
We know that the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon itself referred to "bringing together Europe's external policy tools, both when developing and deciding new policies" to achieve the ambition of developing "Europe as an actor on the global stage". Indeed, a Reflection Group led by Felipe Gonzalez published its report on the long-term future of Europe in May 2010 – beckoning politicians and policy-makers to craft a more self-confident, more energetic approach. Gonsalez demanded assertive leadership over the next two decades, in a 46-page document described as a "wake-up call for Europe to respond to the changing global order", in order for the union to avoid marginalisation and stagnation.
Gonzalez recommended European economic governance, transportable social rights, a long-term vision on European defence and a common strategic concept - imploring: "Only by developing such a strategic approach to its external affairs will the EU be able to translate its huge financial effort more effectively into political leverage." Perhaps the agreement with Australia is just the beginning. Other nations are bound to follow - negotiations with South Korea, China, Switzerland and California have already commenced - in signing up to the biggest carbon market in the world, in the hope that the teething problems of the EU ETS can be ironed out quickly and carbon markets can slow CO2 emissions and climate change.
For the EU ETS was only set up in 2005. But already it involves all 27 member states plus Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and now Australia. Just two years ago, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was even calling for an EU carbon tax. And some optimistic commentators speak of a transnational 'environmental stewardship' body with majority-voting rules, to tackle climate change in the long-term future. An idea that Brussels would no doubt be keen to seize upon. No matter what your stance on Europe is – Europhile, Eurosceptic or Eurorealist – yesterday was a momentous day for the EU.
It is just a shame that hardly any of the media bothered to report it, meaning there was no public debate about the pros and cons of the EU ETS whatsoever. A sorry state of affairs, indeed, when you think that the future of our planet could be at stake. If we are to bank on carbon markets to save us, should we not at least have a discussion about how to improve such trading schemes – given the miserable failure of markets in other areas, which has led us to the current economic crisis that blights all of our lives? The current radio silence from politicians, officials and the mainstream media is deafening. It is time to speak up before it is too late.