Europe and Central Asia
22 Jan 2015

The last chance saloon Commission?
By Ariel Brunner

Europe is in the grip of an economic, environmental and social crisis that in some countries is reaching dangerous levels, with politicians everywhere at lost about how to get out of it. Worryingly, the new Commission seems to be looking for solutions of the past rather than of the future.

In 2010 the EU has adopted a Biodiversity Strategy aiming at reversing the decline of biodiversity by 2020. In 2015 we will be launching our assessment of the progress made, and of what still remains to be done. Without spoiling the suspense, we can already admit that the situation is not good. The erosion of our ecological life-support system keeps progressing, globally and in Europe.

A crucial role will be played by the new European Commission which is currently gearing up. 2015 will be the test year for the new Commission. More broadly, it will be a testing time for the EU itslef, and not just on the environmental front. The context is dramatic. The continent is in the grip of an economic and social crisis that in some countries is reaching dangerous levels, with politicians everywhere at lost about how to get out of it. Most of what is on offer is little more than “more of the same”. Disappointment with established politics is fueling popular anger and boosting protest parties, some which are whipping up fear and hatred. Most ascending political forces, including the most benign ones, are highly critical of “Brussels”. Against this backdrop, the Juncker Commission has got to a bumpy start.

We have heavily criticized the set-up of the new Commission and its initial plans, where the almost sole environment plans are ditching crucial progressive proposals on clear air and moving towards a circular economy. We are worried that the new leadership might be looking for solutions of the past rather than of the future. We are also worried that they might be basing themselves on wrong assumptions, such as that environmental regulation is a burden on the economy, disproven by modern economic research (see recent article on The Economist). A few key tests will have far reaching implications for nature, for the EU and for all of us.

Better regulation or deregulation?

The Juncker Commission seems to be animated by a strong deregulation drive. The perception given by Commissioners’ mandate and proposed workplan is that Juncker has bought into the logic that less regulation is always a good thing and that the road to economic recovery passes through the demolition of decades of rule building that protect European citizens’ health, environment and rights. In the wake of a financial crisis brought about largely by the reckless deregulation of financial markets, applying the same failed therapy to the rest of our civic life would be madness. First Vice President Timmermans has been given the job of promoting “Better Regulation”. He will need to show that with better, he really means better, not less. Stopping the ideological attack on the Birds and Habitat Directives and a serious effort ensure they are better implemented would be a good place to start. Another good idea is legislating minimum standards in environmental inspections, to make sure that existing EU laws are actually respected.

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Less Europe or a citizens’ Europe?

The received wisdom among European politicians is that the Eurosceptic vote means that people want “less Europe”. The UK government is aggressively trying to roll back European common policies and is recklessly using the Brexit threat to extort concessions in that direction. The reality however, is that most Europeans, Brits included, don’t really care about more or less EU and which decision is taken at which level. What they do care about is seeing their interests looked after. Dismantling bits of EU law to appease ideological critics will only lead to a death spiral for the EU. What is needed is reclaiming the role of the EU on things where people do see the value of it, such as protection of the environment. Strong air quality legislation that saves lives and money, and make our cities livable, would be one way of making the EU relevant to its people.

Development model

Too much of what European governments are doing at the moment is just the reproduction of old policies in the attempt to restart an economic model that has already failed. Europe has a huge unemployment problem, but good jobs will not come from keeping decrepit coal power plants going or from more pipelines, motorways and beachfront holiday homes. There are on the other hand many good jobs to be found in energy efficiency, renewables, ecosystem management, watershed restoration etc. It is time for the Commission to pursue the economy of the future, not that of the past. The circular economy package and the fight on 2030 energy efficiency policies are to be watched closely.

Vested interests vs public goods

Much of the anti-Brussels and anti-politics sentiment on Europe’s streets is fueled by the correct perception that our institutions are more often there to protect vested interests than to preserve public goods. If the new Commission wants to reconnect Europe to its citizens it must clean up. Bold access to Justice legislation would, for example, allow citizens to defend their right directly. Conversely, signing up to a US free trade agreement (TTIP) which could allow companies to sue governments for democratically legislating on health and environment safeguards (as in the proposed ISDS mechanism) would be a sure way to confirm the EU’s caricature as an undemocratic fat-cats club that trample over people’s rights.

Internal working of the Commission

Finally it remains to be seen what will come out of Juncker’s verticalisation of the Commission with the creation of two tier system of junior and senior Commissioners. At best, this could break down silo thinking and promote real sustainable development with economic social and environmental concerns taken up together. At worse this might lead to paralysis with ever more hurdles being put on the road of a policy proposal even before it leaves the Commission.

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. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.