Jean-Marc Nollet (Ecolo): ‘I really believe that Vivaldi can still surprise’

Recent months have been difficult for the federal government, admits Ecolo president Jean-Marc Nollet. ‘But I have high expectations: the coming year will be the most useful in the legislature.’ His priorities: fiscal reform and climate change.

Jean-Marc Nollet (Ecolo) rarely gets involved in the cockfight between Paul Magnette (PS) and Georges-Louis Bouchez (MR), which makes him less visible in Flanders than the other French-speaking presidents of the Vivaldi government. It is a conscious choice by the ecologist. ‘I am the oldest chairman in Belgium. I’ve learned that constantly making statements in the media doesn’t get you much, and politics does anything but help. If your party is in a government, you must defend it in the first place’.

Wanting to do more than defend Vivaldi, Nollet is trying to revive the federal government. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo (Open VLD) had difficulty finalizing the modest pension reform package and negotiating an agreement in principle with the energy company Engie to keep two nuclear reactors open. “It was time for the holidays to kick in, because I’ve seen more mutual irritation than progress. Everyone can now rest well, so we are ready for the coming year.’

Jean Marc Nollet (52)

Jean-Marc Nollet has been chairman of Ecolo since 2018, a position he holds together with Rajae Maouane. Between 1999 and 2004 he was Minister of Youth in the French Community Government. Between 2009 and 2014, he was deputy prime minister in the Walloon and French community governments, where he was responsible for Sustainable Development and Civil Service, among other things. In the meantime, he was also a Member of Parliament.

How did you start the holiday? The nuclear exit was your trophy, but now two nuclear power plants remain open.

Jean-Marc Nollet: “A trophy is something tennis players strive for, politicians should not. The nuclear exit was never a goal in itself. Our goal is to have 100 percent clean energy by 2050. The first step is for our country to comply with the climate agreement from Paris, which means that we will emit 55 percent less CO₂ in 2030. Therefore, the weight of nuclear energy in the energy mix must decrease. If you are very dependent on nuclear energy, it is difficult to invest heavily in renewable energy.’

“The coalition agreement contained two options: Close the seven nuclear reactors or keep two reactors open for ten years. Until December 2021, all parameters allowed to shut down all reactors. That has changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine: keeping two reactors open seems to make more sense since then. Georges-Louis Bouchez may not like it, but it still means five reactors will shut down permanently.’

Today there are more ‘hommes de tweet’ than ‘hommes d’État’.

The war in Ukraine shows that we are still very dependent on fossil fuels. In some countries, even more coal is used again. Is climate change still moving in the right direction?

null: ‘Under the previous governments, twenty years have been lost. Now we have to focus on 2050. The next ten years will be a transition period where we will still have to use fossil fuels. What we could not foresee was the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which means we have less access to gas. Then one cannot help but look for temporary solutions, such as extending the life of some nuclear reactors or the use of coal. It’s not the ideal scenario, but as long as it’s a transitional phase that gets us closer to our ultimate goal and follows the Paris trajectory, it’s acceptable.’

If the horizon is 2050, how can you possibly be satisfied with what is now on the table for Vivaldi? Much more is needed to change the climate.

null: ‘I’m clear enough to see that the last few months have been anything but obvious. But I have high hopes that the coming year will be the most useful year for the Legislature. The employees know each other and the files are prepared. Time for action. We cannot afford any more delays or margins.’

“I really believe that Vivaldi can still surprise. Important decision-making moments regarding energy and railways await in the autumn. Finance Minister Vincent Van Peteghem (CD&V) has also put a framework for a tax reform on the table. We can get started on that. A car emits 104 grams of CO₂ per kilometer per person, a train only 14. Let’s not talk about airplanes.’

A trophy is something tennis players aspire to, politicians shouldn’t.

Where do you want to go? A CO₂ tax?

null: “This is what is planned at European level. If Belgium were to implement that decision, I would rather see it as a check planete. The proceeds must not be deposited in the state treasury, but must be returned to the population and the business community. You could give people a CO₂ budget at the beginning of the year. Those who consume more pay extra. Those who consume less can keep the money.’

“We must also quickly work on a tax on the large energy companies’ profits. Their winnings are tripled. They pay out mainly through dividends. It is unethical that the companies – including Engie – now get large profits on the ceiling for the citizens and companies whose bills are far too high.’

The building blocks for a greener tax system are well known: a CO₂ tax, road pricing, a higher tax on air travel. Why do political taboos remain?

null: “Politics find it difficult to see beyond the next election. The moment has become more important than the long term. There are more hommes de tweet today than hommes d’État.’

Do you recognize yourself in the image of Vivaldi as a step government that fails to implement the big bang?

null: ‘Those steps are useful and necessary, but we must dare to go further. Major reforms in taxation, finance, mobility, housing and agriculture are needed to keep the planet habitable. Van Peteghem’s tax reform also goes in that direction. It is a €10 billion tax shift away from taxing income from work. It replaces it with more taxes on assets and pollution. We need to stop paying people with checks or cars and replace it with more net. Anyone who wants to wait until the next Legislature to do something about it, as some seem to be suggesting, is wrong’.

Perhaps the small steps are most visible in the employment agreement and pensions. Are these reforms hardly fundamental?

null: “It is not by tightening the pension conditions that young people are encouraged to go to work. It is mainly used to punish women, who in the past were often not even encouraged to go to work. You have to look at the bigger picture: Our investment plan and the tax reforms must also help to get more people into work. We really need to think about how to keep the work feasible. More than 110,000 people are at home with burnout for a long time. The trade unions and employers’ organizations must look at that problem.’

In Flanders, there is a feeling that Belgium no longer works. One consequence is that N-VA and Vlaams Belang can achieve a majority. Does it scare you?

null: ‘Vlaams Belang doesn’t scare me, but of course I’m worried. We know that the extremes score well in any period of crisis. They are helped by the short-term thinking of traditional politicians. I won’t name names, but hommes de tweet amplifies the extremes.’

“I want to be careful not to say that there is a certain feeling in Flanders. I work with Groen and part of my family lives in Flanders. As a result, I know that Flanders does not have a unanimous position. It is also not true that Flanders and Wallonia think differently about many things. Many of the challenges we face are the same. Last year we had the floods in Wallonia, next year it could be the coast.’

Still, many of your fellow party leaders fear total deadlock in 2024.

null: ‘I have been in politics for twenty years, and for twenty years I have heard it said that the country threatens to become ungovernable after the next election. We have it in our own hands.’

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