Union’s ecological heritage should not be left to waste

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Series Details Vol 7, No.16, 19.4.01, p14
Publication Date 19/04/2001
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Date: 19/04/01

The EU can claim numerous successes during its 30 years of caring for the environment. But Gareth Harding argues that it cannot afford to rest on its laurels

AMIDST all the heated arguments between 'green goodies' and 'business baddies', doomsday scenarios about the future of the planet and institutional wrangling about proposed new laws, it is easy to overlook the fact that environment policy is one of the EU's few undoubted success stories.

In the 30 years since the bloc first started to pay attention to ecological problems, it has adopted close to 300 laws that have made a tangible difference to the lives of European citizens. The air we breathe, the water we drink and the seas we swim in are all cleaner. Emissions of deadly pollutants from exhausts and smokestacks have been slashed and whole swathes of sensitive habitats have been protected as a result of EU rules.

In addition, the Union has been at the forefront of international efforts to curb global warming, acid rain and ozone-depleting substances. With the arrival of the Bush administration in the United States, the EU has an opportunity to cement its position as the world's most progressive environmental bloc. First-mover advantage in areas such as renewable technologies, fuel-efficient cars and emissions trading could also give European companies a competitive edge as fossil-fuel dependent industries go the way of the dinosaurs.

Polls show that one of the reasons why EU environmental laws have been so easy to enact is that Europeans are happy for Brussels to deal with cross-border issues like marine pollution, climate change and nature conservation. And even Eurosceptics have given up arguing for environmental laws to be repatriated to national capitals.

The gnawing question is, with so much to boast about, why do EU leaders pay so little attention to the environment? Summit conclusions usually contain a perfunctory paragraph about the importance of placing the environment at the heart of other policy areas, but you can almost smell the rubber-stamp on the text.

And as for European Commission President Romano Prodi, it is clear that he considers issues such as the strength of the euro, the future of the Common Agricultural Policy and the situation in the Balkans to be far more important than 'soft' issues such as the environment.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström obviously cares strongly about her dossier, but that is more than can be said for some of her colleagues.

In the past year, crucial proposals on electronic waste, chemicals policy and renewables have all been watered down due to ferocious lobbying from industry and stonewalling from more business-minded members of the Commission.

The EU's executive arm has also been heavily criticised by environment ministers, MEPs and green groups for producing a well-meaning but waffly environmental blueprint for the next decade. Reports from the European Environment Agency and other respected bodies show that the Union can ill-afford to rest on its green laurels.

Greenhouse gas emissions are rising once more after dipping in the mid-1990s, much of the Union's biodiversity is under threat from relentless road-building and urban sprawl and the club has failed in its attempt to decouple economic growth from greater resource use.

However, it would be wrong to tar the Commission for the environmental problems that still exist at the European level; for the uncomfortable fact is that the EU's executive body has reached the limits of what it can do to clean up the environment and prevent pollution happening in the first place.

Instead, much of the blame for the sorry state of the bloc's environment lies fairly and squarely with EU governments.

Not only have they ignored many of the environmental directives they themselves signed up to, they have also failed to take the difficult decisions needed to prevent an ecological meltdown.

They have pandered to the car lobby by agreeing to more road-building and lower fuel taxes, failed to make farmers pay for the damage they cause to the countryside and continued to slap taxes on 'goods' like labour rather than 'bads' like pollution.

Faced with such intransigence, the Commission finds itself in something of a quandary.

It is perfectly aware of the solutions to most of the EU's most pressing environmental problems, but it does not have the treaty powers to force member states to switch fuels, tax energy, restrict car use and so on.

And in the areas where the EU does have the ability to change things - namely, farming, fisheries and regional funds and agriculture - it is pitted against a blocking majority of governments that refuses to countenance radical reform for the sake of the environment.

So as the EU prepares to celebrate 30 years of environmental policy-making it has much to cheer about, but equal reason to slope off into the corner and indulge in a serious bout of soul-searching.

The EU can claim numerous successes during its 30 years of caring for the environment. But it cannot afford to rest on its laurels. Article forms part of a survey on the environment.

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