Analysis: EU vote on sustainable finance taxonomy — a disappointing circus

A major setback for green finance at a fractious meeting in Strasbourg

In the end, it was a controversial vote on a controversial topic. No, not Brexit, but the EU’s sustainable finance taxonomy.

For those pushing a deep green agenda, last night’s vote at a fractious joint meeting of the European Parliament’s economics and environmental committees in Strasbourg was nothing short of a disaster as we report today.

The EU Parliament doesn’t usually serve up political theatre, though one observer slammed last night’s events as a circus.

The context of the meeting was fierce corporate resistance to the taxonomy. This was summed up by a statement from corporate lobby group EuropeanIssuers. It strongly opposed excluding specific sectors from access to sustainable and corporate finance by creating a category of activities “with a significant negative environmental impact”.

This was countered by an aghast James Vaccaro, Director of Corporate Strategy at sustainable banking group Triodos. He called it “one of the most astonishing letters in an attempt to derail the process” of developing the taxonomy.

Blasting it as laden with “alternative-facts”, he went on: “This letter makes one of the most shocking reads that I can recall since having read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager.”

So this was the charged atmosphere in which the vote took place.

The meeting of the two committees, ECON and ENVI in the jargon, was chaired by Adina-Ioana Vălean, the Romanian MEP aligned with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping.

The meeting was marked by confusion about MEPs’ voting cards and other procedural matters with Vălean presiding over affairs like an exasperated school-mistress.

She opened up with: “Wow, there’s a lot of interest.” She was chairing in the absence of ECON chair Roberto Gualtieri, the Italian socialist who was among many MEPs who were delayed getting to the meeting.

Vălean warned members that the meeting was going to be web-streamed, “so behave yourself!” It was when the actual voting started that problems started to emerge.

Pervanche Berès, the leading French socialist and former ECON chair, stood up from the floor and said she had forgotten her voting card.This was important as the Parliament’s voting is mainly via a show of hands – indeed it prides itself as resembling “the Greek assembly under Pericles”.

But tight votes sometimes necessitate push-button voting for which MEPs need their electronic cards.

Vălean, who would later in the session ban Berès from speaking from the floor, said: “So you came unprepared, we’ll take notice of that.” Later in the session, it emerged that Renate Sommer, the German aligned with the EPP, had also forgotten her card. It was as if a bunch of unruly schoolkids had forgotten their homework; it belied, or perhaps reflected, the seriousness of the topic.

As the session progressed Vălean – whose committee has in the past called on pension funds to commit to divesting fossil fuels – was strident: “Please be quiet!”

Then the main procedural talking point occurred, when it seemed to Berès that Vălean had broken with procedure to change a vote after it had occurred. One MEP can be heard saying it was “unacceptable” to change a vote.

Vălean continued on the issue of voting cards but Belgium’s Frédérique Ries said the issue was “not about whether you have a voting card – the outcome of the vote had been called”.

A clearly angry Michel Reimon, an Austrian with the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, said: “It’s not possible to bring people in here after the vote is closed.” But Vălean denied this.

“So count your votes, do your job, that’s it. This is YOUR result, I’m not making a different result.”

She went on: “Mme Berès, I don’t know how you do business in ECON… but we are just going to do it my way because I am the chair of this meeting and I am not going to give you the floor again.”

The meeting concluded with Gualtieri just making it to the room in time to preside over the final vote “to put the cherry on the cake” in Vălean’s phrase.

Despite all this parliamentary knock-about, it was the green agenda that suffered most.

One irony is that the meeting took place – as the UK appears about to leave the EU – in the Winston Churchill Room at the Parliament in Strasbourg. In English, of course. Churchill was a huge supporter of European integration, at one stage calling for a United States of Europe – a fact Brexiteers for whom he is a hero somehow forget.

Next up for the ENVI committee is a session on climate change denial, on March 21. That should be worth watching, based on this evidence. How will the heirs of Pericles take on THAT conundrum – always assuming they’ve brought their voting cards?