|Author (Person)||Abbott, Dennis, Frost, Laurence|
|Series Title||European Voice|
|Series Details||Vol.8, No.15, 18.4.02, p13-15|
Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström tells Laurence Frost and Dennis Abbott about what has been achieved during the first half of her term - and her hopes for the future:
Q: You're nearly halfway through your term as environment commissioner. Looking back, what has given you most satisfaction in the job so far?
A: The job as environment commissioner often gives me a feeling of having been placed right in the middle between Heaven and Hell. In between the noble cause of protecting our planet and its resources that so many of our citizens are committed to, and all the doomsday scenarios.
Being able to influence a policy area of such importance to all people is a tremendous privilege. I am very happy to have participated in shaping EU environment policy for many years ahead by developing and presenting a new framework for environment policy actions in the EU, the 6th Environmental Action Programme. The fact that this Commission has secured, for the first time, endorsement of an overarching EU strategy for sustainable development is also of great satisfaction to me - now we must incessantly push, and push hard, to make it work!
Participating in work at international level to find multilateral solutions to global environment problems is another very gratifying, although very demanding, aspect of the job. I have been very proud to represent the EU in the international climate negotiations, where Europe played such a decisive role in saving the Kyoto Protocol and enabling the first crucial steps to be taken by the international community to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: What will be your biggest challenges in the next two-and-a-half years?
A: At the outset of my mandate I outlined a number of priorities, which I wish to make sure are carried through. Regarding chemicals, I want to make sure that we have the new chemicals strategy implemented by 2004, as promised.
Later this year the Commission will present a strategy for the important link between environment and health, where I want to put a particular emphasis on children. I believe that the Commission also needs to take a children's point of view when preparing policies. The strategy on sustainable development requires us to bear the interest of future generations in mind.
How we tackle the waste mountain will continue to be a major challenge during the remainder of my mandate. We generate around 1.3 billion tonnes of waste per year in Europe and we have not yet managed to de-couple the growth of waste from economic growth. Waste management policy is also one of the most contested of the dossiers within my portfolio.
By that I mean that the debate is often very polarised between industry on the one hand, and NGOs on the other. The recent debate on the proposed directive on electrical and electronic waste was rather positive in the respect that NGOs and industry found a common cause, at least on the question of individual producer responsibility. We are now preparing for a thorough debate with stakeholders on our waste and resource management policies. I also look forward to the discussions with both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament on the Commission's proposal on prevention and repair of environmental damage (environmental liability).
I hope that they will secure a swift agreement on the proposal, which I consider will become a cornerstone of EU environmental legislation. I will also continue to
focus on implementation of environmental legislation. Enforcement is critical for an effective EU environmental policy. We will also have to consider what kind of environmental policy will be needed in an enlarged Europe.
The EU's sustainable development strategy will need to be further refined in the months and years ahead.
Q: What are your main objectives for August's UN world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg?
A: I have to confess to a deep sense of frustration at the lack of progress made at the recent preparatory meeting in New York. The preparatory documents and the agenda still resemble the proverbial 'Christmas tree' approach, with not even a date set for Christmas in many cases! As I told the G8 Environment Ministers' meeting in Banff, Canada, last weekend, ten years after the Earth Summit in Rio it is time to move from words to deeds.
It is not yet too late to make a success of Johannesburg. I am convinced that the European Commission will go to Johannesburg with a clear agenda for change.
One of the main reasons why Agenda 21 has not fully delivered on its promise is that it lacked the means to implement its ambitions. This time around, in Johannesburg, we must make integrated decisions - setting ambitious goals and deciding on the means to implement them.
In the run-up to the summit, the Community should work on initiatives in areas such as water management, energy and governance. Johannesburg could be the summit that brings energy and water to the world's poor.
As well as restating our commitment to sustainable development and adopting a political action plan, the summit should launch partnerships for action involving the private sector and financial institutions as well as the broader NGO community.
Q: Is sustainable development more than just a buzz-phrase? How do we get from words to deeds?
A: Sustainable development is far from a buzz-phrase it is already a political strategy, in the EU and in a number of member states.
It is a guiding principle for many international institutions, and many companies are making impressive steps in making sustainable development operational. It is true that the way the concept is understood and the content of national and international strategies are often very different, and that in most cases these strategies need to be better defined and developed.
The first step for moving from words to deeds for us was to focus on a small number of sustainability issues: climate change and energy, public health, the over-use of natural resources and biodiversity loss and transport.
These are the long-term environmental sustainability issues, and now that we have identified them we can address them by concrete actions. A first set of actions was announced in the Göteborg conclusions.
We also have to improve the coherence of our policies. This is why the Commission is working on a system under which it will analyse the impacts of its major policy initiatives on sustainable development. What the Council will make of the Commission's proposals for the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, and of course the review of agricultural policy, will be first test cases for how serious the Community is in taking this integrated and long-term approach.
We have to look much more at how our decisions affect the welfare of future generations before we are taking them - that is what sustainable policy-making is about.
Q: How difficult do you find it to balance the concerns of the green lobby with those of industry?
A: Striking a balance between the interests of ALL stakeholders in environment policy, while looking at environmental problems from a broad, long-term perspective - the perspective of sustainable development - is indeed one of the most challenging and interesting parts of my job.
In my area of responsibility there is often a perceived 'conflict' between green NGOs and industry. Since environment policy today is so much about changing production and consumption patterns, involvement of industry, as well as the NGO community in the policy-making process, is crucial to bring about change.
But balancing seemingly opposite interests does not mean allowing them to cancel each other out. On the contrary, actively working with all the different interested parties brings a lot of added value into the policy making process.
This dialogue increases understanding as well as policy ownership, but it can also be very difficult.
Sometimes I think that if we get complaints from both NGOs and industry, then we have achieved the right balance and done a good job!
Q: Green campaigners have criticised your proposed environmental liability directive for exempting 'authorised' genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or those not considered harmful by scientists at the time of release. Do you sympathise with their concerns - or do you think some NGOs will never be satisfied with what you propose?
A: I think there is a fundamental confusion here. The proposal does cover GMO-related activities. Where the use of the GMO would be found to be inconsistent with the authorisation given for it, resulting environmental damage would indeed be covered by the
new liability rules. On the other hand, a GMO used in full accordance with its authorisation would not be covered by strict liability. But in case of negligence, for example, if an operator did not follow the instructions given by the manufacturer on how to use the GMO, the operator would always be liable.
It is important to remember that environmental risks in connection with using a GMO must be fully assessed prior to authorisation. Only GMOs which are deemed to be safe are authorised for release into the environment. I will keep explaining this to NGOs and others.
Understanding the role of each of the different EU legal instruments when dealing with GMOs is important to achieve more clarity in the often very emotional debate about GMOs, and to address and alleviate citizens concerns.
Q: It's not just NGOs who are complaining - environment ministers have also said the draft liability rules are too loose.
Doesn't this amount to something of a misjudgment on the Commission's part?
A: I am very proud that this Commission, after so many unsuccessful attempts in previous years, has been able to present a proposal for an EU-wide environmental liability regime. It is a first, but very decisive step to bring in place a Europe-wide system, which will ensure that polluters are made to pay for the damage they cause.
The Commission proposal has been drafted after a wide consultation process, which has involved the stakeholders and experts from all the member states.
If the Council considers that the conditions exist to extend the scope and strengthen the provisions of the directive, I will be happy to work together with the ministers and the Parliament to achieve this.
Q: There must now be a strong chance of delays in the adoption of the liability
rules - could this prolong the de facto moratorium on the approval of new GM crops? Or are you expecting the six blocking countries to lift their objections before a clear liability regime is established?
A: I don't think it is useful for me to speculate on this. We have seen the goalposts move before, but member states will eventually have to take their responsibilities. The Commission has delivered on the complementary instruments that member states have asked for, notably by proposing detailed rules for traceability and labelling and a liability regime covering GMOs.
This autumn, the new horizontal directive on GMOs (Directive 2001/18) will enter into force.
At that moment, the approval procedure for pending products and, if there are any, for new notifications, will be started on the basis of the new legislation, which all member states have endorsed.
Q: A report from the European Environmental Agency has recommended increasing the separation distances between genetically modified and conventional crops, to prevent cross-contamination. At present there are no EU rules on this - isn't it time to consider introducing some?
A: The issue of ensuring 'co-existence' of genetically modified and conventional crops, particularly when it comes to organic farming, is currently being debated in the Commission.
The seed legislation, which is now being prepared, is likely to contain general provisions concerning separation distances.
However, local conditions (soil characteristics, climatic conditions, including wind exposure, etc.) are crucial to establish optimal distances.
The general EU rules will therefore have to be specified at local level.
Q: Were you at all surprised when Jim Currie, former environment director-general, accepted a directorship with British Nuclear Fuels?
Is the Commission doing anything to ensure - and to reassure the public - that the appointment will not compromise its ongoing work? Is this a clear conflict-of-interest case?
A: I was certainly very surprised when BNFL made an announcement about Jim Currie's appointment without the Commission having been informed beforehand.
I would have expected Jim Currie to do so, as he did when he took up a similar post with the Royal Bank of Scotland. As soon as the Commission learned of the proposed new post, it asked Jim Currie for all relevant information.
The Commission is now in the process of evaluating whether or not the post is compatible with Jim Currie's obligations as a former official of the Commission.
Personally, I would hope that Jim Currie does not go ahead with this appointment.
Q: Under your chemicals white paper, companies would shoulder the entire burden of the scientific testing needed to regulate their products. Is this fair or, as German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder suggests, could it damage EU firms' ability to compete with foreign producers facing much lighter regulation?
A: We have to close the alarming knowledge gap on the 30,000 or so existing high volume chemicals as quickly as possible. For only a very limited number of these have we sufficient information about the risks they pose to human health and the environment.
The future of the chemicals industry depends on our ability to ensure sustainable use of chemicals.
This is why we have proposed a radical overhaul of the EU's existing strategy on chemicals, where competitiveness of an innovative European chemical industry and the achievement of sustainable development are mutually supportive goals.
In 1981, a new and more ambitious assessment procedure came into force for new chemicals, but existing chemicals continue to be placed on the market as ever.
This has unintentionally discouraged innovation and the production of substitutes for harmful chemicals - thus potentially decreasing the competitiveness of our chemicals industry.
The creation of a single system for all chemicals, both existing and new, will pave the way to chemicals that are verifiably safe and more sustainable.
This system will establish a clear and coherent framework for all chemicals in the EU.
Q: Will job opportunities and innovation be threatened by the new system?
A: I have yet to see actual figures to prove this case and tend to find such accusations implausible.
On the contrary, the EU's new strategy pushes for more innovative products and responds to consumer desires for chemicals that are safe for our health and environment. This should create new jobs and new markets for the chemical sector in the EU.
Chemicals are also under scrutiny in the global arena, for instance in the US and Canada. Concerns about children's exposure to chemicals are driving new international initiatives.
This will have an impact on the globally acting chemical companies.
Those with innovative chemicals that provide a better service while being less harmful will get the highest reward.
Q: The Commission has hinted it could lift the ban on PVC-softening phthalates in babies' toys when it expires next month. However one of the Commission's scientific committees has stated that one such chemical, DINP, is more dangerous than previously thought. The chemicals white paper says known dangerous substances including phthalates should be approved only for 'safe' uses. Are teething rings a safe use?
A: Within the framework of the General Product Safety Directive a temporary ban on the use of phthalates has been imposed every three months since 1999. We have so far absolutely no scientific proof which would allow us to give a green light for use now. Therefore, the temporary ban will not be lifted next month. Which measures we finally will come up with depends on further scientific information, and on the future position of the member states on how we should deal with these dangerous substances.
Q: Does the sharing of responsibility for chemicals policy between three commissioners (David Byrne, Erkki Liikanen and yourself) sometimes make it hard for the Commission to be consistent?
A: The reason why the responsibility is shared is, of course, that the chemicals policy has several objectives. As already discussed, we need to make sure that the substances we use do not harm human health and the environment. We must also make sure that we provide the necessary conditions for the very important European chemicals industry and that we respect internal market and international trade obligations.
It is our role to make these objectives complementary, and that of course involves quite detailed and sometimes difficult discussions on how we best balance the measures we need to take. In my view the chemicals white paper strikes the right balance. My colleagues and I are now in the process of preparing a legislative proposal reflecting the white paper's commonly shared objectives.
Q: Last year you published a green paper on the environmental impact of PVC, which rejected the industry's pledges as inadequate. Is there any progress to report since then, and is a voluntary agreement going to be enough to achieve a phase-out of toxic PVC additives such as cadmium and lead?
A: In the green paper on PVC, the Commission acknowledged that we will need a range of instruments - regulatory as well as voluntary - to tackle the environmental impacts of PVC. It is no secret that I have questioned the level of ambition of the PVC industry's voluntary commitment, not least as regards the proposed dates for the phase-out of lead and the question of recycling. It seems to me that setting a very low recycling target could lend weight to those critics of the PVC industry who argue that it is an inherently unsustainable material and who are therefore pushing for a policy of substitution. The Commission is continuing its preparations for an ambitious communication on PVC, setting out our proposals for tackling its environmental impact.
Q: What's the best and worst thing about being environment commissioner? What do you see yourself doing after the end of your term in two-and-a-half years' time?
A: The best thing is working in an area which is so important to people and giving a 'voice' to the environment. The worst for somebody impatient like me is to have to accept how long it takes to change things, and the very slow and heavy processes it implies. The tasks that fill my present time, and the long-term perspective of sustainable development which drives all the initiatives I am involved in, give me plenty of visions for the future, but little time for speculation.
Interview with Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström.