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It’s a nice analogy to explain why, if his three “children” as European Commission president are the economy, society and the environment, he wishes to make the economy his main priority. But in assessing the first year’s work of Barroso’s Commission it’s revealing that he chooses economy as the sick child, not the environment. But this attitude explains a lot about the direction the Commission is taking.
The fact is that, in most respects, the environment is being taken less seriously at EU level now than it was a couple of years ago.
There are hardly any initiatives that were not on the agenda of the previous Commission, there are lots of communications, strategies and high-level groups, but little real action, and Stavros Dimas, the environment commissioner, had to fight tooth and nail to preserve the thematic strategies that make up the sixth EU environmental action programme after industry complained they were going to impose unreasonable costs.
Barroso is rightly concerned about many of Europe’s citizens viewing the EU as a large bureaucracy with too many rules and regulations, but the way to resolving this has to be through better regulation, not less regulation of the kind that allows companies to ignore environmental safeguards, especially as opinion surveys consistently find that citizens expect the EU to protect their environment.
A year ago we were encouraged to hear Günter Verheugen, the new enterprise commissioner, promising to work towards establishing an EU car industry that would make the safest and cleanest products in the world. In January he set up CARS 21, a high level group of industry executives and EU and national government officials with this stated aim. At the time, the Financial Times commented, “Brussels… should not roll over [to industry], and certainly not on emission controls that are essential to health, climate stability and indeed to innovation”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. But it now looks as if that is exactly what is happening.
In all fields of clean car policy, from Euro-5 emissions standards to average CO2 emissions from new cars, the current aspirations are much less ambitious than they were a year ago, before Verheugen became seriously involved. His support for the delaying tactics of the vehicle makers regarding the EU’s 120 g/km target for CO2 emissions from new cars is particularly nonsensical as there is credible evidence showing that cleaner technology will ultimately be cheaper.
As for the transport commissioner Jacques Barrot, the story is not much better. Very few transport commissioners will be a natural ally of environmental NGOs, but Barrot has shown no enthusiasm whatsoever for “decoupling” economic growth from transport growth, even though scientists agree that in many cases less transport actually helps, rather than damages, the economy. He has also (so far) not taken any steps to improve the transparency of the selection process for determining which Trans-European Transport (TEN-T) projects should receive EU funding, despite evidence that some projects can do more economic, social and environmental harm than good.
He has been keen to allow subsidies for start-up flights from regional airports (as if we don’t have enough direct and indirect subsidies already!) while the Commission is scratching its head over how to alleviate airport capacity problems. And there has not yet been a word on airport charges to control noise and emissions. He has also barely acknowledged the existence of several respected NGOs, which cannot be good for his democratic credibility.
There is usually an exception to a trend, and in this case it has come in aviation: the proposal to include emissions from aircraft in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) for greenhouse gases. Emissions trading is one of the achievements the EU is proud of in the world, and expanding the scheme ought to increase that pride.
Yet here again there are two strong reservations. Firstly, it is vital that including aviation in the ETS is seen as a first step and not a course of action that is sufficient to solve the problem. Other measures will certainly be needed. Secondly, it is important the EU stands up to those influences from overseas – especially the United States – which has already said that it wants exemptions from the ETS rules. The EU has for years said if the world doesn’t take action on cleaning up aviation, it will act unilaterally – it is now essential that all airlines using EU airports are part of the scheme.
Fortunately there is always the European Parliament, which has traditionally been the citizen’s ally on many dossiers.
Since the 2004 elections we have noticed less of a willingness by MEPs to “green” proposals or fight for environmental elements in legislation, for example over the “Reach” chemicals directive.
But any shift among MEPs has been much less than in the Commission, and we are very pleased to see the support they gave to fighting some of the worst aspects of the Eurovignette directive, in particular fighting for the right of member states to charge for external costs.
Looking forward, it seems to me that we have come quite far (though not far enough) in solving clearly visible pollution like thick smoke and filthy water. But the major remaining challenges are less obviously visible to the average citizen. Issues like Climate Change and protecting biodiversity are long term and global in scale and therefore assigning responsibilities to specific countries and specific sectors is a challenge. These issues really put political leaders to the test.
For T&E and our member organisations across Europe, we’re in a time when environmental campaigners still have the arguments on their side but there is a need to adapt our messages, sharpen the story and hold our nerve.
In this spirit, may I wish you a very happy festive season, and an optimistic and energetic new year!
This news story is taken from the December 2005 edition of T&E Bulletin.