The proposed new structure of the European Commission sidelines sustainability issues and risks undoing years of environmental legislation, writes Tony Long.
By Tony Long, Director of the WWF EU office, on behalf of the Green10 Coalition
In Spring 2014, when European citizens went to vote for the new European Parliament and the Spitzenkandidat of the new European Commission, the 10 biggest environmental NGOs, of which WWF is part, put together a manifesto with this main ask: “Create new jobs, shift the tax base from labour to resource consumption and eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies through a new economic strategy based on sustainability principles.”
This is very similar to what we were saying 25 years ago when we argued for the Maastricht Treaty to include sustainable development in the fundamental principles of the Union. An objective we eventually won. The Parliament may have changed in the past 4 months but the major European and international policy frameworks have not.
- The EU2020 strategy approved by the European Council in 2010 and currently under review. It’s introduction is worth re-stating – “It is (…..) about addressing the shortcomings of our growth model and creating the conditions for a smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.” One of the seven flagship initiatives is its commitment to a resource efficiency and resource productivity agenda.
- The post 2020 climate and energy strategy which is still in play and whose targets for CO2 reduction, renewable energies and energy efficiency need drastic tightening. Not only for climate science reasons but also the new geopolitical and energy security realities on Europe’s doorstep.
- The Seventh Environment Action Programme which the last Parliament pushed so hard to achieve in the face of a wavering Commission. Now enshrined as a binding European declaration of environmental intent including huge commitments to a modern public health agenda leading towards a toxics free environment.
- The EU Biodiversity strategy which the European Parliament supported in 2012 and which calls for an ambitious new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. Biodiversity loss is an enormous challenge in the EU, with around one in four species currently threatened with extinction and 88% of fish stocks over-exploited or significantly depleted.
- The new Sustainable Development goals to replace the Millennium Development goals after next year where Europe is sending a message to the world about the universality of sustainable development principles.
The list goes on.
We know pretty well know what next five years will bring us and what will be important agendas in the principal committees. There are already main lines of domestic and external relations policy that this Parliament will be judged against. We also know from a recent Eurobarometer polling that this is a popular agenda. A progressive environmental agenda is what European citizens are looking for too – 95% saying that they want strong environmental policies.
It is perhaps easy to forget all of this context in the febrile atmosphere surrounding what is in effect a new administration at European level. In this ongoing agenda, the G10 believes that the job of the European Parliament has just been made more difficult by the cards they have been dealt by Commission President-Elect, Jean-Claude Juncker. His personally-delivered mandates are in danger of assuming a significance that is out of proportion to these other encompassing policy agendas inherited over years that I have just described.
Why should the national, European and global environmental, development, and sustainability agendas be subsumed by these instructions to the new Commission and Commissioners? And why would the Parliament not want to have a say in these policy mandates as much as in the Commission nominees themselves?
As examples, the structures he is proposing are found lacking in:
- No Vice-President for sustainability;
- A minimal reflection of environment and climate in any of the Vice-President priorities;
- The ending of dedicated Commissioners for Environment and Climate;
- The filtering of new legislative initiatives through a new first Vice President from which environment is largely absent.
The mandates in the mission letters are frequently far from bold, and in some cases are actually regressive. In the case of the Environment and Marine and Fisheries Commissioner, there is a pronounced deregulatory emphasis with the habitats and birds directives, the air quality legislation and the circular economy agenda all opened for scrutiny is some cases before the ink on the paper is even dry.
All eyes will be on the Parliament in the next weeks in Europe and beyond. The Green 10 has urged the Parliament earlier this month to reject this proposed Commission. We continue to do so, largely because of the concerns about the proposed restructuring and the mandates which I have just mentioned. But also because of concerns that some of those nominated as Commissioners appear poorly aligned to their respective portfolios. Our general concern is that the credibility of the EU institutions, and specifically the Parliament, will be severely damaged if nominees are slotted into positions for which they are clearly not suited. The people of Europe deserve better than that.
We have made four positive proposals which we urge the Parliament to push for in the confirmation hearings:
- A Vice President for sustainability – an objective which the Green 10 shares with the 1,800 European and international relief and development NGOs through its umbrella organization, Concord;
- Ensure the Environment portfolio is reinstated with a dedicated Environment Commissioner, charged with a more progressive, less negative, environmental mandate;
- Full inclusion of climate on at least an equal basis in the mandate and title of the proposed Vice-President for Energy Union;
- Effective scrutiny of potential conflicts of interest.
We believe the confirmation hearings will allow the Parliament to align to a more progressive, more open, more outward agenda than the one implied in the mandates. Making a position of Vice-President for Sustainability which brings together all the Commission Portfolios which touch on social, economic and environmental issues is perfectly consistent with the new Commission’s proposals.
The Green10 coalition includes: Birdlife, CEE Bankwatch Network, CAN-Europe, European Environmental Bureau (EEB), HEAL, Friends of the Earth Europe, Transport & Environment, Naturfreunde, Greenpeace and WWF.