Green debate heats up

BRUSSELS – Can the European Union reduce air pollution without creating financial havoc for industry? Can it protect marine life without generating prohibitive costs? The executive European Commission will lock horns on those questions today in what activists are calling a make-or-break moment for the future of EU environmental policy. The battle to boost the sluggish economy of the 25-nation bloc, while remaining true to social and ecological policy goals, has been a key theme of President Jose Manuel Barroso’s Commission, which took office last November. Barroso has made accelerating economic growth his main goal, while also pledging support for the concept of sustainable development, which values protection of natural resources. His decision to conduct a broad debate about environmental policy and shelve a planned initiative on air pollution in the meantime has left activists fearing that business interests have prevailed within the EU executive. The delay has called into question six other initiatives or «strategies» on pesticides, the marine environment, sustainable use of resources, waste prevention and recycling, soil quality and urban environmental management. «Any delays in the process of bringing these strategies forward for Commission approval and adoption will mark a serious and grave setback in the EU’s enviable record on environmental matters,» environmental groups including Greenpeace and the WWF said in a letter to each commissioner last week. «We believe any postponement will send a signal to world public opinion that the EU is backtracking in its global leadership role on sustainable development.» The EU has a reputation for being a world leader on issues such as climate change. But high unemployment and stagnant economies in some member states have fueled calls to cut down on costs to big employers. One test case going through the EU law-making machine is a controversial bill mandating the registration and testing of thousands of chemicals, known as REACH, which industry and some big EU states want to make more business-friendly. The business lobby UNICE said it hoped the benefits of such measures would justify the costs, and denied it was seeking to delay environmental laws. «What industry is seeking is really having workable legislation,» said the group’s senior adviser for environmental affairs, Nadine Toscani. «If you have a realistic scheme that can be implemented, it will also give you better opportunities to achieve environmental performance.» Within the Commission, insiders say trade chief Peter Mandelson and internal markets head Charlie McCreevy are the most resistant to further legislation. Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, in charge of the competitiveness of the European economy in the EU executive, is working with the current EU president, Britain, to weed out unnecessary regulation, but has been cautious ahead of today’s debate. The discussion is not meant to lead to a formal decision on the proposals, but it could determine their survival, officials said. The so-called «thematic strategies» were requested in 2002 by the European Parliament and member states, which instructed the Commission to present proposals in seven areas by July 2005. Only five have draft legislation attached. Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas told reporters last week that «in all of these scenarios the benefits are four times more than the costs.» Green groups said Dimas, a conservative former Wall Street lawyer once thought to be more of a friend of industry, is fighting hard to push the strategies through.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.