The EU must not hand over more powers to Geneva
Editorial by Jos Dings, Director There’s an old joke that says the EU would not be allowed to be a member of itself. This is because it insists that all member states must have parliaments whose workings are open to the public, but the EU’s main decision-making body, the Council of Ministers, meets behind closed doors.
There are things that can be improved with the EU’s decision-making process, and the feeling that it’s hard to understand how EU legislation is formed leads to a sense of mistrust that was all too clear in
the recent European elections. The Council is a problem as it’s easily the least transparent of
the EU institutions, but in general the EU legislative process is fairly clear. Once you put a bit of effort into understanding the process and finding the
right websites for background information, it’s not hard to follow – I am a Dutchman, but have always found EU decision- making clearer than the process in the Netherlands.
If you compare it with the UN Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, the EU is positively user-friendly. But before I start dwelling on its workings, an important question is: does UN-ECE matter?
The answer is yes, because whenever you hear someone saying we need global agreement on something, it is often a cover for passing responsibility to the UN-ECE in Geneva.
The EU enterprise commissioner G̈uenter Verheugen has been a strong advocate of moving EU-level decision-making to Geneva, under the guise of ‘better regulation’. But passing responsibility to the UN-ECE would be like signing a pledge to do nothing. Let me explain why.
UN-ECE has various working groups, many of them with sub-groups. And the working group processes are almost impossible to track. Some of the work can be monitored online, but is almost impossible to track down. Much of it is not online, documents are often distributed in meetings, and tasks are divided over innumerable informal working groups whose multi-day meetings require enormous resources to follow, often too many re-
sources even for the European Commission, let alone NGOs like T&E.
It’s not just a question of administrative mechanics – there is also a democratic deficit and conflicts of interest.
Affected industries, and member states which have affected industries in their countries, are invariably well represented – for them it’s worth investing in.
But differences between member states and industry are sometimes hard to spot. At one noise meeting, the Italian government representative carried a Ferrari business card!
No prizes for guessing the outcome of such processes. They are mind-bogglingly slow,
and attempts at environmental progress are watered down and lost in the minutiae of
small-scale decision-making to the point where they are meaningless.
Three quick examples.
First: tyre pressure monitoring systems, devices that should warn drivers when they have to pump up their tyres in order to save lives, fuel, CO2, and
tyre wear, obviously need to be accurate. EU politicians recently agreed in the ‘general safety regulation’ that these systems must be accurate, but industry is trying, through a UN-ECE regulation, to get systems approved that are anything but accurate, all to save €20 or so. Second: 30 years of
UN-ECE ‘work’ on noise from cars has failed to make them any quieter. Each round of seemingly stricter standards has been accompanied by
changes in test procedures that mysteriously cancelled out any progress. Third: earlier this
month, the UN-ECE decided not to include energy use and CO2 emissions from air conditioning systems in the new car test cycle to be developed.
This makes official CO2 figures for cars notoriously unreliable and gives manufacturers who
choose to install the cheapest and most energy-guzzling systems a free ride.
There are three lessons to draw from this. First: the EU should claw back powers from Geneva, rather than give them away. Globalisation is all well
and good, but only if global regulatory bodies are up to the task, which clearly is not the
case. (This is a good project for the next industry commissioner.) Second: the UN-ECE
processes need to be transformed – access to information should be drastically expanded
and simplified, political oversight should increase, and NGOs should be given free access. Third: NGOs should step up their involvement – if NGOs don’t push for change, the wheels will not turn any
faster, making the job of combatting environmental threats even harder.