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40th anniversary event EEB: Former EEB Secretary General sounds a warning over the future of EU environmental policies

Former EEB Secretary General, John Hontelez spoke of the successes and failures of EU environmental policies since the 1980s.  In particular, he underlined how the EEB 2010 conference had successfully campaigned the incoming Belgian Presidency to convince the European Commission of the need for a 7th Environmental Action Programme. He reminded participants that the 7th EAP was subsequently adopted, and looking at the messages from coming from President Juncker so far on environmental policy, this Programme might become more important than ever, as it is a legally binding agreement between the three institutions and lasts until 2020.

Recalling the history of Europe’s environmental policies from the 1st environmental action plan that was adopted in July 1973 following the Paris Summit, he recalled how after 15 years of merely trying to limit specific environmental problems 1987 saw the first major step with European Economic Community integrating the environment into the Single European Act that led to the launch of the single market in 1992.  This combined for the first time a “high level of environmental protection” throughout the Community with a stronger pressure upon individual member states not to the undermine level playing field for industry with unilateral environmental action.

Speaking on the successes of environmental policies John underlined how “the European Community, and later the European Union, has been pulling environmental policies forward. He refered to Environmental Liability, Natura 2000,   agri-environmental measures, the Water Framework and IPPC Directives and the more recent work on circular economy. The results were seldom ambitious enough in the eyes of environmentalists, or even the most progressive countries. On the  other hand, many of the individual member states would not have gone that far individually. This is because, in certain periods, not the lowest common denominator but the engagement of the frontrunners amongst member states was decisive. The disappearance of such frontrunners is therefore the biggest threat to the environmental agenda today.

More recently however, he underlined that the EU’s lead role in the environmental sphere is under pressure and, indeed, fading away. He argued that enlargement of 2004 and 2007 made the EU more complex, leaving the newcomers with an uphill battle to get their house in order. At the same time the impact of globalisation, the emergence of       new economic powers, the nervousness about competition and increased unemployment put the progressive countries under pressure. Within a few years, all the frontrunners except for Sweden had abandoned that role. The argument that such EU initiatives would help countries with a less strong domestic environmental agenda to come along was apparently not so important anymore. Most of the previous frontrunners even decided to take EU environmental policies as the ceiling rather than the floor: “no gold plating”, “word-by-word” transposition” became popular mottos. He noted that the European Parliament, historically the greenest of the three institutions, was becoming less reliable. Sustainable development was being marginalised. Instead, environmental policies got a high profile in policies to reduce the burdens for business.  In reality EU environmental policy causes less than 1%   of the total administrative burden   of EU policies, nevertheless environmental policies remained amongst the most popular policies to attack, with REACH at the top of the list.

In his closing remarks, John underlined the roll of the EU globally in shaping an environmental agenda for future generations. As a global laboratory, if EU regulation is not possible here it will not be possible elsewhere. The EU is studied and  followed by    other   countries       worldwide. He called on politicians to step up and fight against  the     short-sightedness     of       national         interests        and traditional economic  thinking and the role of environmental NGOs in Europe has never been more important. READ MORE

Issue 38