Europeans have chosen to protect the environment and EU leaders should listen

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In Germany in particular, but also in Austria, France and other countries, climate and nature conservation were decisive factors in the European elections. [Stewart Black/Flickr]

The European Council should take the result of the European elections seriously and ensure that the EU’s goals and budget are future-oriented, with a particular emphasis on sustainability and environment, write Dr Raphael Weyland and Konstantin Kreiser.

Dr Raphael Weyland is the head of the Brussels office of the environmental NGO Naturschutzbund Deutschland. Konstantin Kreiser is the head of NGOs Global Affairs and EU Nature Conservation Policy unit. 

One month after the European elections,  the heads of state and government will meet in Brussels for the European Council on 20-21 June.

In the European elections, there was an above-average turnout, meaning that Europeans showed hope in the “European Project”. In Germany in particular, but also in Austria, France and other countries, climate and nature conservation were decisive factors in the European elections.

Citizens now expect bold decisions to be taken. Problems need to be solved, not just repressed and managed.

European leaders will have the opportunity to be bold in the forthcoming summit where the Strategic Agenda and the EU’s next long-term budget will be discussed. If heads of state and government want to continue being relevant to the future generation of voters, they should not let this opportunity go amiss.

“Business as usual” not only endangers well-being and prosperity, something which was emphatically demonstrated in the latest status report of the World Biodiversity Council IPBES.

Too much caution by heads of state and government on the environment and climate protection issues could also strike another blow to traditional parties, adding to the damage already caused by the Fridays for Future movement and German YouTuber Rezo.

Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024

With the European Strategic Agenda, heads of state and government set the EU’s most important priorities for the coming years. In many countries, it appeared clear that voters saw climate protection as a key issue in the European elections.

For the coming years, one of the EU’s priorities will be to protect the environment. With this in mind, the draft Strategic Agenda, which is being drawn up by current European Council President Donald Tusk, needs to be corrected in view of the incoming Parliament.

Environmental aspects have not yet been highlighted or detailed. They have only been mentioned as part of one of four priorities, along with social aspects, consumer protection and cheap energy production.

The draft also fails to recognise the overarching nature of the United Nations’ sustainability goals (SDGs). These are (only) mentioned under the section that relates to the EU’s role in the world.

However, sustainability does not only affect developing countries and cannot simply be counted as an economic and social aspect. Any regulation and any budgetary decisions need to take into account the natural limits of the planet and its ecosystems.

SDGs must, therefore, influence the drawing up of the Strategic Agenda and shape the individual priorities in the areas of sustainable management, environmental protection and social policy. To improve the rule of law and the effectiveness of existing EU (environmental) law, a “Better Compliance” initiative is also needed at EU level.

From the point of view of Naturschutzbund Deutschland (NABU) and other environmental organisations, the European Council should also take the following decisions:

Environmental protection needs to be an EU priority. Both the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis should be explicitly stated as focal points for action. The EU must launch an initiative to better implement and enforce existing EU law, especially with regards to the environment.

So-called “fitness checks” by the European Commission have recently shown that the EU’s nature conservation directives are effective, efficient and of high added value for the EU. However, their implementation remains inadequate and their financing dramatically poor.

The agenda for “better lawmaking”, which is mainly based on alleged bureaucratic costs, should be re-termed to a “good legislation” agenda. The guiding principle needs to be the public interest, as opposed to guidelines that are often non-binding and ineffective. The European Commission should adopt binding and unambiguous regulations or directives.

EU multiannual financial framework for 2021-2027

About a year ago, the EU’s Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger presented the proposal for the next long-term budget (MFF).

NABU criticised the proposal because, despite the dramatic biodiversity crisis, it did not provide for independent funds for nature conversation. Instead, it maintains the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has proven to be inefficient because of the devastating flat-rate area payments for the environment. Yet, the more environmentally friendly second pillar of the CAP will be cut disproportionately.

Negotiations on the EU budget have not made any real progress so far. There is a lot of room for manoeuvre, particularly regarding the agricultural sector.

EU leaders now have the opportunity (and duty) at the European Council to respond to civil society’s crucial criticisms. They should call on the EU Commission to revise its budget proposal so that it presents a long-term plan that supports the ecologically necessary transformation processes with intelligent investments and incentives.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that the budget is not simply an accounting instrument but also a means of achieving political objectives!

Unfortunately, under his presidency, the planet’s welfare played a lesser role than ever before.

NABU urges the European Council to earmark €15 billion per year for biodiversity conservation in the MFF. This should be in the form of an EU nature conservation fund that would reward the services of farmers, forest owners and other land users. They should also be able to earn money by restoring biodiversity.

We also call on the Commission to withdraw its CAP proposal and develop a new “land use and food policy”. This must be negotiated on an equal footing by the departments responsible for regional development, the environment, consumer protection, development, the internal market, competition and agriculture.

Finally, all agricultural subsidies should be linked to demanding environmental standards, including the provision of 10% of near-natural, non-productive farm shares as a “green infrastructure” for insects, birds, water and climate protection.

EU top jobs 

At the European Council in June, heads of state and government are also expected to discuss the succession of EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

In contrast to parliamentary elections in the European member states, it is not up to the parties represented in the European Parliament to make a proposal for the staffing of top EU jobs.

Rather, pursuant to Article 17(7) of the Treaty on European Union, the European Council proposes to the European Parliament a candidate for the office of the president of the European Commission. In doing so, he has to take the election result into account.

This choice is particularly important because the Commission still has the sole right of legislative initiative.

NABU proposes that EU leaders stop doing “backroom deals” when it comes to choosing who takes on the top jobs. In addition to absolute transparency, the focus must be on the ability to tackle the urgent challenges of our time, in particular, the climate and biodiversity crisis – with all the political boldness required for this.

While the European Commission President should be responsible for compliance with the SDGs in all political and administrative decisions, vice-presidents should be responsible, among other things, for the rule of law and climate protection, as well as for the protection of natural resources and biodiversity. Among the latter are the Commissioners for the Environment, the Sea and Agriculture and Food.

The position for an independent European Commissioner on the Environment needs to make a comeback. Linking the position with fisheries and marine protection has not proved successful from an environmental point of view.

On 20 and 21 June, important decisions will be taken. NABU appeals to the EU leaders, above all to Chancellor Angela Merkel, to take the European elections and their mandate seriously. European leaders should not ignore the alarming scientific findings on the state of the planet.

We have to make bold choices and take decisions that favour future generations, not specific interests.

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