The European Commission has finally launched its plans for a ‘European Green Deal’, including a road map that it says will put the EU on a path for becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. Niall Bakewell reflects on the previous false dawn of a Green New Deal past attempts to implement a Green New Deal in Britain and Northern Ireland, suggesting that their failures may be a harbinger of things to come. 

I wasn’t at all surprised to read Professor Daniela Gabor’s scathing critique of the European Green Deal in last week’s Guardian. In her article Professor Gabor describes a fatal weakening of an original concept to create a €1tn stimulus package that would have simultaneously decarbonised the European Union’s societies and economies, whilst cushioning the financial impact on workers in obsolete fossil fuel industries.

She rightly points out how the European Commission has dropped the word ‘new’ from the original title of the European Green New Deal, to avoid association with its origins at the dawn of American flirtation with social democracy.

Her main conclusion is that an unreformed – and arguably unreformable – neoliberal Europe, dominated by German austerity macroeconomics, is incapable of delivering a green stimulus package that would lead to the just transition that the policy and its enthusiasts claim to desire.

Neoliberal assumptions

You cannot graft an essentially socialist stem onto neoliberal rootstock. In this case, the pro-business, anti-worker presumptions of the European elite have twisted the original idea until it suits their vision of the perfect political economy, killing the whole concept in the process.

When you consider the amount money spent on lobbying by the big fossil fuel companies (over €250m since 2010) in Brussels each year, and the clout that has, it becomes pretty much impossible to believe that the EU in its current form can ever rise to the challenge of meeting its obligations to avoid crossing the 1.5 degrees warming threshold.

The reason I’m not surprised by any of this is that I’ve seen it all before, in one of the smallest sub-jurisdictions, at the remotest western fringe of the continent – and if history doesn’t repeat itself, it’s rhyming like hell for me right now.

Origins of the Green New Deal

I first came across the concept of a Green New Deal in 2008, when I was working as an activism organiser for Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland. It was developed by the Green New Deal group – a who’s who of the most prominent figures on the green liberal-left at the time, including: then Green MEP (now MP), Caroline Lucas; former Director of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper; Economics Editor at the Guardian, Larry Elliot; and green economist, Colin Hines.

Brought together by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), they harked back to Roosevelt’s interventionism and stimulus packages of the 1930s and 40s to tackle the ‘triple crunch’ of what were the three major crises of the time – climate change, the looming credit crunch (the first Green New Deal report was published in July 2008, before Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers collapsed); and peak oil, since oil prices were at an all-time high back then and everyone fully expected them to keep going up.

Just like Roosevelt’s original New Deal, this was a Keynesian proposal to restore counter-cyclical tax-and-spend, and basic regulation of the financial system. It rightly harked back to the urgency of the dual crises of the 1929 crash and the rise of fascism, as it called for measures that would have simultaneously tackled fuel poverty and created hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Some of the proposals were both prescient, but also naïve when considered in the context of what followed. If you consider the call for:

“Allowing all nations far greater autonomy over domestic monetary policy (interest rates and money supply) and fiscal policy (government spending and taxation)”

in the context of what German economic hegemony meant for Europe’s peripheral nations when the credit crunch really bedded in, you can begin to understand how Green New Deal concepts were always doomed to founder on the rocks of the contemporary global political economy.

Northern Ireland’s Green New Deal

Sitting in an office in Belfast that summer, my colleagues and I were desperate for any lifeline in the face of a local political and administrative regime that was proving extremely hostile to our agenda.

The Green New Deal paper offered us a foundation upon which we could build a local coalition of business, labour and green sector interests to lobby the devolved institutions for a novel approach to reducing Northern Ireland’s disproportionately high carbon footprint, rates of fuel poverty and unemployment.

By 2010 this group had firm proposals for its own version of the Green New Deal concept, costed at around £200 million, would come from the Northern Ireland devolved budget over three years. Every political party rushed to endorse the proposals – although  I do remember several politicians refer to a ‘New Green Deal’ on election debates at the time, revealing how little they actual thought about or understood the concept beyond seeing it as a bullet point on a single-sided sheet of A4 as they were rushing into the studio.

From hope to reality

It took two more years for reality to set in. The bureaucratic establishment here was risk averse and neoliberal to its core, and riddled with managerial economists who could quickly bamboozle ministers elected largely on the basis of their ethno-national perspective, rather than their insight into political economy.

By spring 2012 negotiations with the Department of Social Development has whittled down the original £72 million over three years to £12 million over four. This money was to be taken out of the operational budget of the environmental regulator (on the pretence that it was ‘green’).

Much as this was disappointing, the overall concept of helping households in fuel poverty to improve the energy efficiency (and comfort levels of their homes) seemed intact. The spirit of the Green New Deal was alive, but was being smothered by bureaucratic parsimoniousness.

And then came the punch to the guts when the then Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, suddenly announced that the money wouldn’t be spent on a programme of home improvement, nor would it help to leverage millions more in private finance at low interest rates, with tangible benefits for the region’s economy. Instead the money snatched from an already beleaguered environment agency would be handed out as partial grants for boiler replacement – money only useful to those with the means to match the grant with their own funds.

As political commentator Mick Fealty said at the time:

“The grant (which is money that goes out and won’t come back) is £1000. A decent new generation boiler costs £2200. That’s a shortfall of £1200. Who can afford to raise that shortfall who can truly be said to be suffering from ‘fuel poverty’? If anything this is in danger of further feather bedding the middle class to the exclusion of those who need it.”

Co-option and defeat

First-hand witness of the prolonged strangulation of the Green New Deal’s ambitions was Northern Ireland Campaigner at Friends of the Earth Declan Allison. Reflecting on what happened at the time, he recently told me:

“The appropriation of the concept of the Green New Deal, and the twisting of definitions, was a textbook example of how those in power defuse popular ideas and disempower civic society. What began as an ambitious, though not very radical, idea for a largescale programme of public works to create jobs, tackle fuel poverty, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, was systematically slowed, derailed, co-opted, then mutated into an ineffective boiler replacement scheme that only those with the means to do it themselves could afford to take part in….the apparent support for the Green New Deal was used as a cover to strip funds from other environmental and energy efficiency schemes. The promised redirected funds never materialised and were never returned to the original schemes.

In the summer of 2008 activists felt a sense of powerlessness in the face of anti-reformist, neoliberal managerialism at the heart of our politics, bureaucracy and large parts of our civil society. It felt impossible to achieve any of our core aims, with our supposed allies in the green NGO sector held hostage by statutory funding, and their own pro-establishment timidity.

The allure of the Green New Deal for us was that it seemed like a Trojan Horse. We could sneak radical proposals to decarbonise our society by appealing to the Northern Ireland establishment’s pro-business, pro-growth sentiments, with a nice sprinkling of economic populism on top.

Where we were proved wrong was in believing that we could shy away from the much harder task of holding to absolute principles of a radical overhaul of our entire political economy in the face of  deeply embedded neo liberal group think.

We severely underestimated the resilience of this neoliberal consensus of the political and bureaucratic elites in Northern Ireland, and in the end left the environment in an even worse state than when we’d started, with millions of pounds taken away from frontline environmental crime enforcement.

Failure on a much grander scale

Twelve years on and with the signs of climate breakdown now visible, the structural, institutional and ideological obstacles we had to face in those years are writ large in the very fabric of the EU. And this is where the concept of a European-wide Green New Deal is destined to fail, this time on a much grander scale. Billions of euros will find their way into conventional financial markets, rather than into the pockets of workers facing redundancy, there will be no Just Transition for them. Opportunities will be lost, including the peaking of emissions this year – a vital step to keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The only pathway to sustainability is a political economic revolution, one which the EU as an institution is incapable of permitting. Until we move past profit and growth, extractivism and exploitation we will continue down the path towards a global catastrophe that will hit the poorest first and hardest.

Any attempt to harness the current EU political economy to serve the needs of people and planet will inevitably turn out like the first Northern Ireland Green New Deal, dead.

by Niall Bakewell

Originally published on 2 March 2020 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.


Niall Bakewell is a former environmental activism campaigner with Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland. He is now a freelance environmental righst commentator and presents the environmental rights and democracy programme Earth Matters on Northern Visions Television. (