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Europe and Central Asia
13 Jan 2016

Big on big things?

While the EU has world class legislation, it’s implementation and enforcement is often a shambles. Photo: Flickr/European Parliament
By Ariel Brunner

In my piece last January, I argued that the Juncker Commission had started its journey on the wrong path, looking for solutions from the past rather than the future.

One year on, the jury is still out. Some rhetoric has changed, but suspicion remains that the EU agenda has been captured by vested interests bent on demolishing the EU environmental ambition under the doublespeak of “better regulation”. Even the devastating Volkswagen scandal doesn’t seem to have brought the badly-needed moment of reckoning, or shifted attention from the obsession with “red tape” to the need to actually get things done. 

But there are also lights of hope. The EU’s strong support to the Sustainable Development goals offers a golden opportunity for a fundamental change of course. This is desperately needed to tackle climate change and the biodiversity crisis, and can also help with other crises, from the loss of EU legitimacy and unemployment, to terrorism.

Last year I set a number of criteria to test the EU’s commitment to sustainable development and addressing the environmental crisis. So how did the Commission perform?

After the initial clumsy attempt to kill the new air and waste legislation, the Commission backpedaled. The air legislation has now been tabled and is being approved (albeit mangled by the powerful intensive livestock farming lobby). When it comes to the waste law it is clear that the “more ambition” rhetoric was not matched by action but at least we are moving forward.

While some language has been softened, the Commission still seems to see deregulation as the default option. While environmental policy-making has been massively slowed down, it has been busy pursuing the REFIT programme, with little sign that the interest has shifted to serving citizens’ interests. The composition and working of the new Regulatory Scrutiny Board will be the thing to keep an eye on. Will it become just a vehicle for killing environmental initiatives? Or will it become a way to mainstream sustainable development?

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Another test will be the upcoming Fitness check on Monitoring and Reporting. Who can be against streamlining? And who likes reporting obligations? The reality is that without reliable data, no policy or law enforcement is possible. In most cases today, the enforcement of EU environmental law depends more on NGO complaints than on data officially gathered. We’ll see whether this fitness check is used to ensure a level playing field and data-based policy, or if it will be misused to further erode the enforcement capacity of the Commission.

The Volkswagen scandal has brought to light what most of us knew for a long time. While the EU has world class legislation, it’s implementation and enforcement is often a shambles. The fact that car companies have been able to trick the system for years, with full government cover, is a long-running scandal. The fact that it had to fall to US inspectors to do the clean-up is an indictment of a failed system. While the Commission is scrambling to ‘patch up’ car testing, there is no indication for the moment that they intend to address the underlying problem. Long due proposals on inspections and access to justice have been quietly buried, and the erosion of the Commission enforcement apparatus continues unchecked.

A more positive story is the one closest to our heart – the Fitness check of the Birds and Habitats Directives. While the Commission has not officially broken yet with Juncker’s flawed orders to “merge and modernise” the nature legislation, the fitness check has so far been conducted in a fair, professional and transparent way. The massive evidence gathered by the Commission clearly vindicates our NatureAlert campaign – while no valid reasons have emerged for tampering with the legal text, plenty of evidence has emerged for the need to improve implementation, crack down on law breaking, fix the broken funding system and address the main reason for our failure to reverse the decline of biodiversity – intensive farming and the perversions of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Admittedly the past year has not been easy for President Juncker: the economic crisis has no end in sight, and the refugee crisis and concerns over terrorism have been eroding the foundations of Europe. We are facing, for the first time since World War II a real possibility that Europe would turn its back on peace, solidarity and cooperation and revert to the flawed logics or beggar thy neighbor competition, nationalism, mistrust and fear that have made this continent a killing grounds in the past. Against this backdrop, Juncker and Timmermans may be tempted to focus on the “Big Things” and consider the environment a “small thing”. This would be a huge mistake.

Climate change and the collapse of biodiversity remain the greatest existential threats to our civilization. An EU that stands up to powerful commercial interests and protects the rights of its citizens is an EU people would be happier to believe in. Building a climate-compatible, nature-friendly circular economy is exactly the kind of project that can lift Europe out of an economic dead end and create the millions of jobs needed.

There is a clear “positive” agenda out there, if only they can lift their sight. And it doesn’t get bigger than that.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.