Will the new EU Commission assure Europe’s leadership on sustainable development?

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

IUCN World Congress 2012 [GEF/Flickr]

IUCN World Congress 2012 [GEF/Flickr]

The re-shuffling of responsibilities among the European Commission’s directorates for the environment, climate change and energy are likely to fundamentally alter the landscape of EU environment policy over the next five years, writes Luc Bas.

Luc Bas is Director of the EU Representative Office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposed team of Commissioners and their portfolios hold two changes that are particularly noteworthy from the perspective of an international environment organisation such as IUCN: the merger of responsibilities over the directorates on energy and climate change, and the merger of maritime affairs and environment.

While the European Parliament still needs to conclude hearings and vote on the proposed Commission, both of these changes are likely to fundamentally alter the landscape of EU environment policy over the next five years.

Critics have voiced concerns over the absence of a Commissioner dedicated specifically to environment and another to climate change. The fear is the real risk that the focus on these crucial and challenging policy areas could be marginalized by industry, agriculture, fisheries and energy interests.

On the other hand, one can also argue that in an ideal world closer cooperation between these intertwined portfolios could, if well managed, lead to beneficial synergies, which would overcome the current compartmentalization of EU environment policy-making that has in the past often resulted in contradicting decisions.

Furthermore, it will be crucial to ensure that environmental protection and nature conservation become further ingrained as key guiding principles in other policy areas, and to stress the importance of decisive action on climate change through adequate EU energy, transport and agriculture policy.  After all, a recent Eurobarometer poll of 28,000 EU citizens clearly stated that 95% of respondents view environmental protection as important, and call on policy makers to do more to ensure its protection. It does, however, remain difficult to see how the new constellation of the European Commission will be able to ensure that this happens.

In an ideal world, climate change and environment should be a combined and direct responsibility at the Vice-President level. Not only would such a Commissioner have the necessary power to truly prioritise sustainable development and resource efficiency, but this step would also boost Europe’s competiveness and innovation capacity in the global green economy race. Unfortunately, Europe does not seem ready for that paradigm shift quite yet. At the same time, a Vice-President for the Energy Union is a promising step for enhancing Europe’s energy independence, but this does not automatically guarantee that environment and climate change are adequately addressed.

The mission letter for the new Commissioner for Environment, Marine Affairs and Fisheries, which lists its primary focus as reviewing nature legislation, reinforces fears that environmental concerns will be sidelined. Our nature legislation, i.e. the Birds and Habitats Directives, forms the backbone of the EU’s strong environmental framework. An assessment of these Directives can be useful for fine-tuning and improving their effectiveness, but a review that aims to make them ‘fit for purpose’ and turn them into a ‘modern piece of legislation’ leaves dangerous room for interpretation in a context of deregulation.

There is a clear risk that this overhaul could weaken Europe’s nature legislation and with it our role as international leaders in promoting nature as a solution for both environmental and societal challenges – the basis for transitioning to a genuine green economy.

As IUCN, and in close cooperation with our partners and members both in national governments and environmental organisations, we will keep a close eye on the direction this review will take, and ensure that the EU does not lose sight of its biodiversity and nature conservation targets.

After all, the Commissioner-designate’s mission letter also stresses that “ensuring the sustainability of our environment, the preservation of our natural resources and the conservation of our maritime biological resources are key policy objectives requiring action at all levels.”

IUCN is ready to work with its members, partners and the new European Commission to hold the EU to this promise!

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