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The EU Says It Cares About Climate Change. Ireland Could Test That.

Sinn Féin's victory could give it a chance to enact an ambitious climate platform.

Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

Ireland’s left-leaning nationalist party, Sinn Féin, won a historic upset this past weekend, taking the highest vote share in the country’s general election and effectively breaking a century of centrist and right-wing two-party rule by Fine Gael and Fianna Fái. The race was dominated by issues of dwindling public investment, health care, and housing. But as the dust settles, Sinn Féin’s climate platform will be one to watch, particularly given Ireland’s ranking as the worst-performing country in the European Union on climate. Sinn Féin’s platform—emphasizing climate justice and a so-called just transition, avoiding massive job loss—promises more aggressive emissions-curbing policies than the those of much of the Democratic field stateside, including a ban on fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure, an end to peat and coal power within five years, and divesting public agencies and pension funds from fossil fuels.

Whether any of that happens depends first on what shape Ireland’s governing coalition ends up taking. Should that coalition try to curb the island’s emissions aggressively, it could face a challenge similar to that faced by the continent’s other left-leaning governments: an EU that’s ostensibly committed to cutting carbon but just as, if not more, committed to its fiscal rulebook.

Announced to fanfare during the U.N. Climate Talks in Madrid last December, Europe’s Green Deal aims to render the bloc’s 27 member countries climate neutral by 2050, with a spate of new investment and decarbonization pushes in sectors from transit to farming. Reducing emissions, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, will be central to the Commission’s broader agenda moving forward. “This is Europe’s man on the moon moment,” she announced, stating that the plan’s goal is “to reconcile the economy with our planet.”

Yet as David Adler and Yanis Varoufakis pointed out last week in The Guardian, the 1 trillion euros ($1.09 trillion) von der Leyen has pledged toward a wide-ranging green transition pales in comparison to the 4.2 trillion euros the commission spent bailing out the banks during the Great Recession, after which countries around Europe—including Ireland—enforced brutal austerity measures at Berlin’s behest. And even that lone green trillion, Adler and Varoufakis note, is premised largely on “mobilizing” private finance. Concrete allocations have been set at just 7.5 billion euros over seven years, compared to the 260 billion euros of annual funds the commission estimates will be needed to meet the Green Deal’s own goals. Much of the new financing, paltry as it is, is supposed to come from incentivizing private sector investment. Whether it’ll be the public or corporations who get a better Green Deal out of that setup remains to be seen.

Countries hoping to transition themselves off fossil fuels—smaller and indebted economies, in particular—could run up against the EU’s notoriously strict and complex array of fiscal rules, which bar member countries from running government deficits above 3 percent of gross domestic product. Spain—whose prime minister and Cabinet members campaigned on a Green New Deal—joined Portugal and Italy last year in supporting a proposal to amend EU law so as to create exceptions for green spending, which could further run afoul of the commission’s state aid laws. The measure got a chilly reception from commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis, who called the issue “divisive.” There’s been more recent talk of trying to change EU rules in the coming year, but for now states risk backlash from the commission should they implement ambitious green spending and social programs. France, Italy, and Spain, for instance, have all come under fire in the past few months for stepping out of line, having been scolded in a commission report for “fiscal expansion” out of step with its Stability and Growth Pact. As Greece learned the hard way, austerity economics and climate policy are at loggerheads: Forced to implement harsh cuts, Syriza—the left-wing coalition party in power from 2015 to 2019—opened up the Ionian Sea to oil drilling by multinational corporations during its last year in office.

To be clear, any such fights are likely a ways down the road in Ireland, if they come at all. No party gained enough votes to form an outright majority in its parliamentary system, and Sinn Féin did not field enough candidates to give it the highest number of seats in the country’s legislature, the Dáil. Incumbent Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said his center-right Fine Gael party will refuse to form a government with Sinn Féin, which the opposition Fianna Fáil ruled out as well. Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s leader, may now try to form a coalition without either, bringing in the smaller parties of the alliance Solidarity–People Before Profit as well as the more centrist Irish Greens. Like the new government itself, Sinn Féin’s commitment to climate remains to be seen. In a ranking by the Irish nonprofit OneFuture, the Solidarity-PBP and Greens’ climate platforms ranked above Sinn Féin’s. And while scoring low, that party’s climate plans did beat out those of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which each received “F” grades. Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, the first of Sinn Féin’s candidates elected to the new Dáil, pledged climate would be one of his top priorities upon taking office. “We keep piling more and more cars onto the road, we need to invest in a significant amount in transforming the public transport system,” he said Tuesday. “Ultimately we can’t continue like this.”

For now, as the postelection haggling over Ireland’s next government plays out, Sinn Féin’s victory may serve as a bellwether for other countries as they embark on the expensive and gravely necessary work of reining in emissions. The EU will have to decide which it cares more about: its fiscal rules or rapid decarbonization.