What kind of Europe is worth saving?

March 8, 2017

Last week European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker presented his plan for the future of Europe. Or, more accurately, he presented different scenarios for what that future could look like. It would be easy to dismiss this as another round of Brussels navel gazing but the truth is this debate matters. Especially to environmentalists.

We have often been critical of the EU and the Commission. We have slammed the Commission for its disastrous biofuels policy, its slow development of real-world emission tests for cars, its caving in on the aviation ETS, its constant delaying of almost everything. And yes, what the Commission and the EU are doing is often insufficient and unsatisfactory.

But it’s also true that many of the things we care about are only possible thanks to the EU. Think of climate targets or vehicle safety standards. Or think of vehicle emissions regulations. Sure, they are imperfect. But it’s also clear that German, French or Italian national standards wouldn’t exactly be an improvement. The reality is that the EU has the scale and regulatory instruments to do a much better job than national governments ever would.

Pollution and climate change know no borders. To lose Europe would be to lose many of the things we passionately believe are necessary and right.

Our job as an NGO is not to be the EU’s – and certainly not the Commission’s – cheerleader. We must be an independent and credible watchdog. We need to scrutinise and expose what the Commission does. But at least as important is to check on national governments, which increasingly dominate EU decision making.

Take the example of Dieselgate. As the European Parliament’s investigative committee EMIS concluded: Dieselgate is essentially about national officials and carmakers colluding to skew emission tests and the EU having no authority to intervene.

Dieselgate and how it played out is actually an interesting case study for Europe’s wider problems. Initially when we tried to explain to journalists that this wasn’t about ‘fatcat commission bureaucrats messing up’ they simply didn’t want to hear it. It didn’t fit the narrative. It would have been easy to change tune, which would have given us huge media coverage. But it would have been a major strategic mistake as it plays into the hands of those that seek to destroy not only Europe, but also the environmental and climate safeguards we fight for.

Instead, we spent a lot of time and effort explaining to journalists all around Europe that enforcement of emission standards is a national competence. That all these cars with anti-pollution systems which only work when it’s hotter than 17°C were approved by our own democratically elected governments. And that emissions testing is actually one of the clearest areas where ‘more’ Europe is needed.

President Juncker actually mentions the idea a European vehicle enforcement agency in his future of Europe paper. The European Parliament’s EMIS committee also voted in favour of such an agency last week – not because they are die-hard federalists but because it’s plain common sense that a functioning internal market requires proper oversight. But national governments are opposing better oversight. Why? Because their national constituencies are against an agency that ensures they can breathe cleaner air? Of course not. If asked, they’d probably support it. No, the reason is that many of the people sitting in the Council working groups are trying to cover their tracks. They do so under the aegis of ministers in the national capitals – even though some ministers may not be entirely aware of what’s being cooked up by their experts in Brussels. And ministers will only start caring when journalists start asking questions.

This is our contribution to making the European project work a little better. Because for better or worse, the EU is essential to deliver the cleaner, fairer and more efficient transport system we need.

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