Published in Italian on L”ESPRESSO” and in this longer version on “ForumDiseguaglianze e diversità”

Rossella Muroni, (Former President of Legambiente and Member of the Italian parliament)

On the environmental innovation front, the relationship with Europe is the elephant in the room. The vulgate that arrives in the newspapers is that stepmotherly Europe imposes European regulations and directives on us and we are damaged as an economy. On the one hand this wrongs the country's capacity for innovation, on the other it lays the king bare because it reveals that we preside over the places of European decision-making in a distracted and incompetent manner. You have been an MEP and president of the European Greens, you lead a network of companies active in the energy efficiency sector, and you 'lobby' the European institutions. Perhaps we could start from the fact that in Italy we cannot use the word 'lobby' and instead we should?


Monica Frassoni

The distinction between innovators and conservatives now crosses all productive and social sectors. On issues of ecological transition, more and more environmental non-governmental organizations, but also trade unions and other civil society associations are working together with innovative and 'climate-proof' industries. My organization, the European Alliance to Save Energy (EUASE), was founded on the basis of this approach in 2010, after the failure of the COP in Copenhagen; it is made up of international organizations that we can define as somewhere between think-tanks and militant NGOs, such as the European Climate Foundation, E3G or the Kyoto Club, and multinationals such as Siemens, Schneider, Signify (formerly Philips), Knauf Insulation, Danfoss, etc., which operate or were operating in the past in industrial sectors with a large environmental impact and decided that embracing the ecological transition is not only inevitable, but also worthwhile.

EUASE in turn is part of the Coalition for Energy Savings, which is made up of leading environmental NGOs and organizations that bring together companies with similar interests and production, the so-called trade and sectorial associations. This transversal collaboration between industry and civil society started explicitly around 2007-2008, with the first legislative package on emissions reduction, renewables, and efficiency (the so-called 20/20/20 package) and spread over time; it represented an important change from the traditional confrontation between business and civil society associations; it had a growing impact in the dialogue with the European institutions in the years before and during the implementation of the Green Deal.

The increasingly important role of the European Parliament, the tightening of rules on the activities of interest groups and the relations between them and the European institutions, meant that the decision-making process opened and was less limited to a few actors - usually the former energy monopolists or other large companies - locked in the secret rooms of the Brussels palaces.

Not that this no longer happens, quite the contrary. It is enough to peruse the meeting agendas, which are public, of some of the commissioners responsible for the most relevant sectors for the green transition to note that a certain imbalance persists in favor of sectors that we can define as 'fossil' or 'energy-intensive', at least in direct contacts.  

It is therefore not surprising that despite the Green Deal, exactly as had happened at the time of the financial crisis, at the outbreak of the pandemic and then with the conflict in Ukraine, the 'fossil' lobbies got back on track, being able to count on considerable resources and capacity to influence governments; by exploiting the objective complexity of the grand plan of the green transformation of our economies, they took advantage of the thinning out of the large-scale environmentalist street mobilizations, hit by COVID; they skillfully fueled on media the concern about the costs of the Green Deal of so many people and encouraged the unscrupulous choice of some conservatives and liberals to ride on this concern. In this context, the work of the various coalitions of innovators in the 'green' sectors became more difficult, not least because many of them are neither willing nor able to invest an equivalent amount of resources, they do not have such a direct access to governments and the media, which are themselves often financed by 'fossil' economic interests.


Rossella Muroni. Can you explain how it works between the Commission, Parliament and the Council?


Monica Frassoni. The Commission makes the legislative proposal, on the basis of its work program, impact studies and, increasingly, public consultations: it is therefore simply not true, as many government or media representatives repeat, that measures improvised by grey bureaucrats; after the presentation of the proposal, Parliament and the Council work on their respective positions and then have to agree on an identical text, so that the law is actually adopted: this is the co-decision procedure.

The more the starting point, i.e. the Commission's proposal, is clear and ambitious, the more advanced the result will be. For example, the Commission proposal on packaging was very ambitious, in terms of commitments on waste reduction and reuse. It was partly dismantled, but not as much as some Italian manufacturing sectors (and McDonalds) would have liked.

The Council of Ministers, moreover, in this final phase of the Green Deal took in some cases  less negative positions than the Parliament; this development is negative, because until recently, even with many compromises, in climate policies the EP was able to hold more advanced positions and reach transversal majorities. Today, every vote, even in the environment committee, must be won. It is a change that started around the first major controversy that divided the Green Deal front, the one on the phase-out of combustion engine cars by 2035. It is not by accident that in the first draft of the EPP elections manifesto there is the proposal to roll back on this decision. The first real campaign against the Green Deal broke out, but by then it was too late to stop the legislation, and this was the case  (thankfully) for most of energy legislation.

However, from that moment on, the EPP and its leader Weber, also for reasons of rivalry with Ursula Von Der Leyen, began to systematically move closer to the eco-sceptic and right-wing positions of the Assembly, and stopped mediating with the socialists, liberals and greens; a part of the liberals did the same; thus, rules that usually passed with large majorities became extremely controversial.

Moreover, in this turbulent final part of the legislature, some legislative proposals arrived on the agenda that directly affect another bloc of enormous power in Europe and in which the positive forces for 'green' change are weak, namely agribusiness. In this area, the Green Deal has been a failure in this term, as seen recently with the Nature Restoration Act, the Industrial Emissions Directive, and the Pesticide Reform Regulation, which was even rejected by the EP.

Given how this parliamentary term has gone, I think that in the next elections a practice that is already widespread, especially in the agriculture committee, will be reinforced, namely the attempt by the various sectors to send people directly linked to their interests to the EP.

So, maybe they will no longer need to lobby from outside!


Rossella Muroni. We should set up a green counter-lobby then.


Monica Frassoni. That's what we've been trying to do for years, but we need to have great economic and organizational awareness and means. There is definitively a problem of sectors interested in sustainability not being able to work together: until not so long ago, economic actors in renewables considered those in energy efficiency almost as rivals, and vice versa. A 'green confederation' needs to be created in a coordinated way, also working with the most advanced local authorities and associations and, alas, making considerable resources available. Perhaps we should learn from the gas producers who in just a few years have managed to impose the idea that gas is part of the solution rather than a fossil fuel to be abandoned in the short term, convincing even the European Commission, including Commissioner Timmermans himself, that it could benefit from a sort of 'almost green' label. Among those most convinced of this of course are Italians of almost all political colors; for the most part eco-indifferent, they have been easily persuaded by powerful companies, whether state-owned or not, starting with ENI and SNAM: I think this is where the idea of Italy as a 'gas hub' just in the middle of  the current climate emergency comes from....


Silvia Vaccaro. How has Italy behaved in recent years? Which direction - preserve or innovate - has it taken?


Monica Frassoni. Italian MEPs - since we have the system of preferences on large constituencies - change much more than those of other countries. When they arrive, they often have no experience or precise interest in European issues, sometimes they don't speak other languages, and in any case, they need time to make an impact in that colorful and complicated place that is the EP. Many openly collaborate with specific sectors or associations because they are close to them politically and because they are a source of information and even 'training'. As the Anglo-Saxons, inventors of the word 'lobby', well know, if done transparently and correctly, the relationship with these 'intermediate' bodies is not only legitimate, but also useful.

The problem is that, especially in Italy, the electoral system can open the door to reduce the autonomy of the MEP, and lately it seems to me that this aspect has become even more explicit, as has that of the perception of the MEP as a procurer of European funds.  Some of these activities are obviously positive, other have little to do with legislative activity and feed the idea that Europe is nothing more than an ATM for those who can untangle its cumbersome procedures.

Over the past year, however, the Italian government's attitude to the Green Deal has changed radically. Till recently,  it generally played neither a particularly positive nor a particularly negative role. Our impact is also diminished by the fact that our Permanent Representation suffers from a chronic lack of staff and often even well-trained people find themselves handling complicated dossiers alone or almost alone. This understaffing is a constant in our Permanent Representation and has always had a negative impact on our ability to influence decisions.

But today, the instructions about the Green Deal are quite clear (block everything or almost everything) and some sectors and trade associations that are not in favor of the transition are very effective in 'contributing' to the government's position, which is much less open to others contributions. 

On the Green Deal dossiers Italy's role has been, with very few exceptions, negative: green houses, packaging, nature restoration, pesticides, etc. They have managed to work in good time, building alliances and managing to use the fact that Italy has many votes and can count on several other eco-sceptic governments to reduce the scope of important legislation for the Green Deal. Italy's negative impact in the EU is not to be underestimated and, on the other hand, it is no mystery that the government is counting on a radical change of majority in the European elections also in order to dismantle the Green Deal, although fortunately most of the regulations will have been adopted by now.

Unfortunately, also for the reasons I mentioned above, Italy's alternative voices are hardly heard here in Brussels. It is full of Italian lobbyists, but their, or rather our, ability to have an impact on Italian positions in the Council and increasingly in the Commission is more limited at the moment.

Instead, taking note of a more hostile context, we should be able to build an action plan where everyone, industry, civil society, trade unions, local authorities play their part, know how to 'strike' and mobilize in as coordinated a way as possible on at least some issues. In short, faced with a culturally corporatist government which is having an impact in the EU, we must also have a strategy of dialogue and influence that is as coordinated as possible and capable of mobilizing large numbers again. And as happened with the minimum wage, the opposition must understand that on climate change we can and must organize a much more cohesive and effective action. All the polls say that this is a major concern of Italians. We must make it a more visible subject of political battle.

We need to rediscover the dynamic that has led the EU (and therefore Italy) to commit to becoming the first 'zero-emission' continent by 2050, i.e. the combination of the power of science, a huge mobilization of young and old, media attention, and the awareness of being able to gain electoral consensus by espousing the green cause. There is very important and urgent cultural and political work to be done. Not least because years ago we were talking about targets that are six years away from 2030.

The European Green Deal is now a reality from the point of view of standards, even if they are sometimes a little less ambitious than expected and not in all sectors. Now we have to implement them concretely in a very difficult political context that will not necessarily withstand the evidence of facts, from extreme events to wars: the success of the right-wing, fossil companies and agro-industry has been to convince the media and public opinion that we have to slow down because making the ecological transition means harming the most vulnerable people, when we know that it is exactly the opposite. And we must also be able to convince those who are politically distant and skeptical. Because otherwise the consequences will be very serious for everyone.


Silvia Vaccaro. How do you judge the COP28 agreement that closed in December?


Monica Frassoni. As always in this type of event, the outcome is mixed. But we would be wrong to reduce it to a pure diplomatic ballet, because even if the decisions at the COP are mostly not legally binding, its results guide governments, show productive sectors the direction of travel and mobilize millions of people.

For the first time, the final text also addresses the root cause of climate change, namely dependence on fossil fuels; and it calls on Parties to contribute to a rapid reduction in emissions by, among other things, 'phasing out fossil fuels in energy systems'. This outcome on the one hand is positive confirmation that no matter what, we are moving away from fossil fuels, something that was really impossible only last year; but on the other hand, the price of this 'transitioning away' has been to leave the fossil fuel producers to continue pumping gas and oil for many more years; in particular through the specific mention in the same document of technological solutions that are in direct competition for resources with renewables and efficiency and will not be able to deliver on emission reductions within a few years (CCS, nuclear, hydrogen. ..). Furthermore, the text contains mostly non-binding language, only refers to the 2050 horizon and does not indicate targets for 2030.

That said, everyone recognizes that, given the conditions, these two little words were the best that could be achieved. I repeat what I said earlier. To win the battle against devious and money-laden denialism requires a broad mobilization of the people, but also of economic interests.