Commissioner Antonio Tajani thought he was on the platform at the European Business Summit to talk about the EU's industrial policy – a brief engagement with a not very packed conference hall before rushing off to his meeting with the Steel Association.
He was full of enthusiasm for the EU's industrial strategy, introduced last year, to boost growth and jobs through supporting competitive industry . The EU needed industry and enterprise,he told the audience on the second day of the summit, held in Brussels last week.
But what was this? Martin Schoeller from Europe's 500 Entrepreneurs for Growth was also on the panel and he seemed to think that the EU's industrial strategy should be green.
“Leadership is leading as a champion,” he told the audience. Investing in green industry could create generations of jobs, improved infrastructure and growth.
Philippe de Buck, the director general of BusinessEurope, who was sitting on the panel next to him looked distinctly uncomfortable.
Climate change did not feature heavily on the agenda at this year's European Business Summit – the organisers, who include BusinessEurope, seem to have decided it is no longer a priority. But it seemed to keep cropping up anyway.
First there was the European Noise – a spoof newspaper – that was handed out to delegates on their way into the conference centre by a team of volunteers from Friends of the Earth Europe. Then Greenpeace blocked the summit entrance and said that companies that didn't support tightening the climate emissions reduction target to 30% shouldn't be allowed in.
Back on the platform, Commissioner Tajani had a meeting to go to, but he couldn't leave the bid for a green industrial strategy unchallenged:
“A green economy needs to be our final target,” he said, but that final target was some way off and in the meantime, he was sticking with business as usual and an emissions reduction target of 20%.
“Without global agreement, it's impossible to change our position about 20%,” he said. “I'm totally in favour, but my job is to back our industrial system.”
De Buck was equally clear on where the employers forum stood on this issue. Moving from a 20 to a 30% target was not on the table.
Of course, Business Europe has made no secret of its opposition to tougher climate targets. The employers' lobby group issued a statement opposing more ambitious emission reduction targets ahead of the Cancun climate talks and has stuck by its position, despite growing calls for higher targets from some of its own members.
Research by Corporate Europe Observatory has also shown how BusinessEurope has lobbied extensively behind closed doors to hamper effective climate policies, ensuring that some of Europe's most energy intensive industries do not have to pay for emissions permits under the third phase of the EU Emissions Trading System and ensuring they can continue to benefit from dodgy offsets which benefit their profits, but do little for the climate .
And BusinessEurope's influential role with the Commission does not appear to be diminishing, as the European Business Summit shows. Jointly organised by BusinessEurope with the Federation of Enterprises of Belgium and European Commission, the event is a giant networking opportunity for business executives and Commission officials, with lounges dedicated for private conversations, and invitation only lunches and dinners, where business can make its case.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso gave a key note address on the first day of the summit, the President of the Council Herman Van Rompuy joined the closing debate and six European Commissioners spoke at sessions at the summit. And if a commissioner wasn't on the panel, a head of cabinet took their place.
BusinessEurope clearly has the ear of the Commission – and what is really worrying is the way they are distorting the debate.
As Friends of the Earth Europe's editorial in European Noise explained, the result is the continued failure – by business leaders and politicians – to face up to the scale of the challenge posed by climate change.
The insistence on putting industry and competitiveness first diverts attention from a very pressing real challenge. It is no easy task to shift the world from a fossil fuel driven economy to a low carbon future. But it is something that the EU needs to do – sooner, rather than later.
Big business does not want to accept this challenge. The European steel association, Eurofer, issued a statement last Thursday challenging Europe's “green strategy” – no doubt this is what Commissioner Tajani was rushing off to talk to them about.
The steel industry, and others, would like the politicians to believe that they can't afford to cut carbon and that the third phase of the emissions trading system will effectively force them out of Europe. Yet steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal has already earned $140 million from the Emissions Trading System, selling emissions permits that they received for free.
Eurofer seems to think it can keep coming back to the Commission and effectively asking for more. And Commissioner Tajani seems happy to oblige. He told the summit session that he would like to see industry getting more funds from the ETS.
Delayed action of course does not just cost more in the long run for industry, it also increases the costs and the damage caused by climate change. It is time the Commission stopped listening to its friends in business – they should not determine the extent of the Commission's climate ambition. The Commission must listen to the science. An emissions reduction target of 30% lacks ambition – we need to go beyond this and quickly, before it is too late.