Dark days for the Environment across Europe

Friday 12th September 2014

The new EC President’s Jean-Claude Juncker has got the public worried. An apparent shift in EC priorities, from protecting human health and the environment, to protecting big business and growth puts the raison d'être of the Union in doubt.  Public spirited MEPs who understand the importance of the environment to health and well-being have a few weeks to influence the structure and achieve a more reassuring environmental remit for the new team.

Whatever else people think about the EU, it has for the last 25 years been provided clear leadership and direction on the environment.  Across the brief from the protection of species, habitats, water resources and clean air to being a global leader on issues such as deforestation and climate change the EU has put in place the legislation and policies that have led towards a healthier environment. European Union Flag

This week the new EC President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed a new structure for his nominated commissioners and in a letter to each one set out what he wants them to do over the next five years or so.

The result looks very worrying for anyone who thinks that one of the benefits of working with neighbouring countries is to better protect our common environment.  Proposed changes appear to risk the environment becoming a distant side issue with no clear positive direction or aim.  The bigger risk for the EU is that if it is no longer perceived to taking its environmental brief seriously then the answer to the question ‘Why do we have an EU?’ becomes less clear.

In summary these are the issues that have the wildlife and environment movement in a flap:-

  1. 1. For the first time in 25 years there will not be an ‘Environment Commissioner’ – the role is being amalgamated with fisheries and marine to produce a Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.


  1. 2. Jean-Claude Juncker has set out the brief for the nominated Commissioner, while it includes “Ensuring the sustainability of our environment, the preservation of our natural resources and the conservation of our maritime biological resources.” The first task of the new commissioner is to “overhaul the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for   purpose……..evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation.” – there can be no doubt about the intention here – ‘more modern legislation’ is well established code for weakening the Directives.Jean Claude Juncker (c) European People's Party


  1. 3. Karmenu Vella, the proposed commissioner, is from Malta, little is known about his views and track record on the environment, but Malta is famous for its failure to protect birds and effectively implement the Birds Directive.  The Maltese government is under intense pressure to stop shooting Europe’s birds as they migrate over the island, now a Maltese politician will have the power to save Malta by changing the legislation.   This is either the world’s biggest attempt to achieve a ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ effect or a cynical effort at steering the environment agenda by national politics.


  1. 4. The Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries reports in to the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness – whose letter only mentions the environment in the following context “helping improve the business environment in order to strengthen Europe as an attractive place to work and invest” and whose main objective is to “help support economic recovery, to strengthen job creation, to enhance Europe’s competitiveness and to stimulate investment in the real economy” while the environment is indeed essential for achieving these short termist objectives, is this really the remit that should be holding our long term future in its hands?


  1. 5. Indeed the natural environment, sustainable development, resource efficiency and the green economy are not covered at all at Vice-President level in the proposed structure.


  1. 6. The priorities of the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development are to “focus on ensuring that rural development spending is well integrated into jobs- and growth-generating investment strategies” and “Implementing the recently agreed CAP reform so as to maximise its contribution to our jobs and growth agenda” again no mention of the importance of this role in protecting and managing a healthy environment and sustainable agricultural system. The Agriculture Commissioner also reports in to the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.


  1. 7. The Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy is not given clear and unambiguous objectives of reducing damaging emissions or acting to halt climate change instead the role has the rather woolly aims of “establishing….a forward-looking climate change policy”, “strengthen the share of renewable energies”, “reach our climate goals in a cost-effective way” and “plays a leading role in international climate policy”. Developing “A binding 30% objective for energy efficiency by 2030” is the one clear environmental objective set out in the whole of this proposed EC remit.


  1. 8. Finally, the European Chemicals Agency, whose job is to protect European citizens from harmful chemicals, is being moved from DG Environment to DG Enterprise, as with many of the other changes this typifies a shift in priorities of the EC, from protecting human health and the environment, to protecting big business and growth.


Over the next few weeks Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposals will be debated by the EU parliament and there is the opportunity to positively influence the structure and priorities.  Many MEPs are strongly motivated by a desire to protect and enhance human health and the environment – there is hope that they will be able to boost the environment within the priorities and tie it back in at the highest levels of authority within the EC.