The Commission’s narrow and outdated jobs and growth agenda will not allow global warming to be contained. More needs to be done if it is to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, writes Jeremy Wates.
Jeremy Wates is Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
The New Year is traditionally a time to make resolutions. At the EEB, we are encouraging European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to make greening his 10 political priorities his resolution. To encourage him, this week, we launched our Juncker Commission Political Priorities Revisited, showing how the European Commission could transform its priorities into a more forward looking, fit-for-purpose agenda that would allow the EU to tackle environmental, social and economic issues in Europe and face up to its global responsibilities.
The environment is widely recognised as one of the EU’s success stories – not necessarily in terms of arriving at something we could call environmental sustainability, there we clearly have a long way to go, but in terms of how much worse things would have been if environmental issues had not been addressed at European level. This success is reflected internally in the EU’s own environmental legislation, built up over several decades, but also externally through the region’s role as a leader and a facilitator at international level.
A real and imminent threat to these achievements has recently been posed by the British prime minister’s demand that the EU agree to a specific target for reducing the ‘burden’ of EU regulation on businesses. This goes way beyond earlier demands to remove unnecessary administrative burdens, because it would apply irrespective of the benefits of EU regulation to society as a whole, which often vastly outweigh the costs to business, even in purely monetary terms.
Such a target could seriously impede efforts to solve major problems like ecosystem collapse, climate change and the depletion of the world’s resources. It could not only undermine further progress on the path towards sustainability but even reverse what has been achieved through action at European level so far. The EU’s efforts to tackle these challenges, together with its economic and social ones, should not be allowed to be held to ransom by the UK. Nor should Westminster be allowed to impose its deregulatory agenda on the EU.
Worryingly, however, leading figures in the European Commission, not least Juncker, have up to now ignored the environmental success story and the fact that undermining it will undermine support for the EU itself. Instead, many in the EU institutions seem to believe that support from business associations celebrating the EU single market will be sufficient to engage citizens in the European project. The need to tackle climate change made an appearance in Juncker’s 10 priorities, the guiding policy framework behind his tenure at the helm of the Commission, but only as part of an energy and green growth agenda which fails to consider the bigger environmental picture.
The 2016 Work Programme from the executive offered some glimmers of hope. Here the environment, and the need to protect it, plays at least a minor role, spurred on by the success of the Nature Alert campaign, where more than 500,000 Europeans called for the EU to enforce, not scrap, EU biodiversity laws.
This is a small step in the right direction, but requires more. By signing up to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its 17 universally applicable sustainable development goals, the EU has implicitly committed itself to putting sustainability at the heart of its policies. It now needs to implement the global agenda at European level, so that ‘Transforming our World’ (the title of the 2030 Agenda) becomes ‘Transforming Europe’.
This implies a complete overhaul of Juncker’s 10 priorities, with environmental concerns reinstated under an overarching commitment to sustainable development. Unless we address the challenges facing the climate, nature and wildlife, the EU, in common with all other regions of the world, will be unable to tackle economic and social issues. A failure to align the Juncker priorities with the new global sustainable development agenda would either imply that they are already aligned with it, which is manifestly false, or that the EU is not serious about its international commitments.
The outcome of the Paris climate talks provides a further reason for the Juncker priorities to be revised. The final text agreed at Paris states that countries will seek to keep temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and that they will “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees”, acknowledging that this is necessary to the very survival of the most vulnerable nations. To its credit, the EU was a key instigator of this reference to the lower temperature, yet the Commission’s narrow and outdated jobs and growth agenda will not allow global warming to be contained at either of these levels.
Innovative ways to tackle these challenges are largely lacking from the European Commission’s thinking. The negotiation in 2015 of a revised Inter-Institutional Agreement on Better Law-Making between the three main EU institutions might have provided an opportunity to rectify this situation. However, the Commission failed to grab the chanc, and instead initially proposed that the other two institutions sign up to its 10 Priorities. This approach was fortunately rejected by the European Parliament and the Council, but the EU executive has since then shown few signs of recognising that it might be time for a change of direction. Indeed, the first anniversary of the Juncker Commission, weeks after the adoption of the SDGs, might have provided the opportunity for the executive to announce a revised set of priorities. But this did not happen.
Given this lack of institutional action, the EEB has decided to take the matter into its own hands. Our priorities are not the blueprint of an environmental NGO, but a viable plan just waiting for political will to fill the sails, following through on commitments made by the EU institutions and member states under the aegis of Agenda 2030 and the Paris climate deal. To this end, we look forward to engaging with the European Commission, the European Parliament, national ministers and others on these priorities, and to hearing what they have to say about our ideas. We would like to see 2016 designated as the year of delivery on sustainable development, as the year when the EU started to live up to its national and international responsibilities.
“Today we celebrate, tomorrow we have to act,” said EU climate chief, Miguel Arias Cañete, at the end of COP21. A greening of the Juncker priorities would offer a clear roadmap for EU action.