Belgian presidency must bear fruits of Göteborg labours

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Series Details Vol.7, No.25, 21.6.01, p12
Publication Date 21/06/2001
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Date: 21/06/01

By Simon Coss

The Göteborg summit may be over but the question of sustainable development is as high on the European Union's agenda as ever, if the slew of reports coming out of the Union's think-tanks are to be believed.

The recurring theme in all of these reports is the idea that Göteborg was merely the beginning of a long and complicated process. If the Union is really serious about promoting strong economic growth while at the same time respecting and improving the environment, then it has a lot of hard work ahead.

Several groups point out that it will be up to the Belgian government, which takes over the EU presidency at the beginning of next month, to carry forward the momentum created at Göteborg.

And according to Karen de Jonghe, a senior aide to Belgian Consumer Affairs Minister Magda Aelvoet, it is a task which her country relishes. "Throughout this presidency, the promotion of sustainable consumption and production patterns will serve as the principal guideline for the environmental policy of the EU," she told a recent conference organised by the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC).

De Jonghe added that the Belgian presidency's environmental priorities could be summed up by the phrase "sustainable development and quality of life".

When it comes to tackling concrete issues linked to the general question of sustainable development, the single biggest challenge facing the Belgians is the question of how the EU should deal with the United States' refusal to ratify the Kyoto climate change deal.

Despite President Bush's best efforts to convince EU leaders at Göteborg that he really does care about the environment, the US gave no indication that it intends to change its stance on Kyoto.

For the influential Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), the Union must recognise that Washington is highly unlikely to budge on the question. This means the EU should draw up policy plans based on the assumption that the US will not be involved in any global climate change deals in the near future.

CEPS experts Christain Egenhofer and Jan Cornillie both insist that the EU must "stop chasing the chimera of US ratification", and instead concentrate on building alliances with countries such as Russia, Japan and the developing nations, which are committed to Kyoto.

But to do this, the pair warn, the Union must overcome its considerable internal divisions on climate change.

Amid all of the brouhaha which surrounded Bush's announcement that he intended to junk Kyoto, it was conveniently forgotten that the Union's member states had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiating table before they could agree a common approach to the 1997 climate change talks. More importantly, the agreement they finally reached was based on the assumption that Washington would sign up to Kyoto.

Given Bush's declaration, the CEPS experts warn that persuading the Union's member states to maintain their united front on climate change will be no easy matter. "This will be the biggest task of the current presidency and even more so for the incoming Belgians," added Egenhofer and Cornillie. As far as the Union's various business lobbies are concerned, sustainable development is a good idea in principle but the EU's current approach to the question is somewhat lopsided.

EU employers' confederation UNICE not only lobbies on behalf of European businesses but also produces regular reports on a wide range of policy issues.

The group argues that sustainable development should rest on three equal 'pillars' - economic prosperity, social cohesion and environmental quality.

But UNICE complains that all of the European Commission's most recent proposals on this subject - including the extensive sustainable development strategy formally adopted at Göteborg - have tended to favour the last of these three pillars at the expense of the other two. "Failure to apply the three above-mentioned fundamental principles can have a very negative influence on the profitability, competitiveness and innovation capacity of the companies concerned," UNICE environmental expert Fabrizio d'Adda argues.

Not surprisingly, the pro-environment European Environmental Bureau (EEB) - another lobby group/think-tank hybrid - disagrees.

In a recent policy paper the group called on the EU to state its commitment to environmental concerns even more strongly and called on Göteborg to pledge to make the Union the most "resource efficient" economy in the world.

Feature on the challenge facing the Belgian presidency, July-December 2001, to push forward EU initiatives on sustainable development.

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