This opinion piece was co-written by Angelo Caserta, regional director of Birdlife Europe, Jeremy Wates, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau, and Tony Long, director of the WWF European Policy Office.
This month the European Commission came out with a proposal to re-evaluate several areas of existing environmental legislation and scrutinise new environmental proposals all under the banner of reducing costs for business. The proposal, which was presented as part of a wider “Refit - Fit for Growth” agenda, seeks to trim down legislation and cut down "red tape". It seems to have environment regulations firmly in its sights.
The declaration came straight from on high, from President José Manuel Barroso himself. Far from the “Green Europe” which he once toyed with as a world leader in combatting global climate change, he now seems to have bought into an agenda which sees all environmental standards as barriers to business. This downplaying of European leadership in matters green fits to the new political mood but it will certainly lead to a growing disenchantment with the European project if one of its signal successes, namely environmental policy, starts to get unpicked.
It is clear that Refit fits into a pattern of a rollback in environmental legislation and policy in Europe. Many governments are trying to reboot stalled economic activity through neo-liberal shock therapy. Irresponsibly, and flying in the face of available evidence, environmental standards and progressive policy have been seen as a drag on economic growth and job creation and have been under attack.
Instead of seeing natural resources, clean and healthy environments as long-term economic and public health assets from which business will benefit, this narrow, short-term thinking sees the environment at worst as an obstacle to growth and at best as something to be exploited for very short-term economic advantage.
The threat to withdraw proposals for directives on soil and on access to environmental justice are two examples which show a line of thinking that goes directly against the environment and against a smart, sustainable and inclusive growth championed in Barroso’s own Europe 2020 initiative. Since the majority of biodiversity is locked up in soils, the EU would be almost bound to fail in its 2020 target to halt biodiversity loss unless it takes a strong stand in this area.
If fitness checks are to analyse how legislation is performing they must go both ways. In areas where environmental protection is deemed inadequate, following evaluations, legislation should be tightened. Framing Refit purely in terms of reducing burden on some business sectors, without looking at the bigger picture such as positive impacts on citizens, society at large and even the wider economy is misguided.
One of the main questions being asked by the environmental community is why this is happening, and why now? Is this purely a case of pandering to certain business interests which are using the economic crisis as an excuse to get their way? The communication for this proposal quotes “74% of Europeans believe that the EU generates too much red tape”.
In a political context where eurosceptic right wing fringe parties are gaining in the polls, with a war cry for an “end to EU regulation”, it certainly is a sad day for the EU if leaders like Barroso start to compete with parties like UK Independence Party that still deny human impact on climate change, simply to gain the favour of the loony right.
The current public backlash against the EU stems from the perception that it is removed from the daily lives of citizens, and captured by vested interests which force unpopular austerity policies.
None of these would be tackled by reducing the level of environmental ambition. On the contrary, the environment comes up consistently at the top of the list of areas where citizens have confidence in the EU, and would like to see more action. In the UK, the environment is about the only topic on which citizens trust the EU more than their national government.
Withdrawing good environmental initiatives, or questioning well established EU environmental law, would therefore be going in the wrong direction and against the principles of the EU 2020 strategy which Barroso put his own name to in leading the direction of the Union for the current decade.