The EU eco-commissioner: ‘Pressure from vested interests, support from the people’

It’s tough for a Greek to have the post of European Union commissioner for the environment, since for years his country has trailed way behind its partners with regard to environmental protection. Nevertheless, Stavros Dimas does a great job of maintaining an equilibrium, even when it means conflict. He talked to Kathimerini’s magazine Eco about the EU’s environmental policy and the situation in Greece. What pressure are you under and how much freedom do you actually have? The environment may be among the main priorities for the European Union and its people, but the commissioner often comes up against vested economic interests. Many of our initiatives call for change, even in our own daily habits. But the pressures we are subject to are enormous. Still, there is a great deal of support from the public and that is of decisive importance in promoting policies to protect the environment. You are the first commissioner to have the courage to question the validity of the findings by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on genetically modified products as being based on research by the firms who produce them. How was your statement received by the other commissioners? The European Commission supports the scientific independence of the EFSA. What could be improved are the general rules and the procedures for approving genetically modified products in the EU, a view shared by my colleagues on the Commission but also something that relevant ministers from member states raise at the ministers’ councils. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would ban the cultivation of genetically modified plants in France. However, the EU rejected a similar move by Austria. What margins do member states have to take a different stand on GM products? Different cases where GM products are banned are treated separately. In some cases, the legal conditions for banning GM products have not been fulfilled and that is why the Commission, as trustee of the treaties and of EU legislation, has a duty to take the necessary steps. In Austria’s case, the Commission did not take any action against the ban on growing GM varieties of corn on is territory. During your term of office have you found issues on which you had a different view in the past? I have discovered many new environmental issues but above all I have discovered just what a central place they have in relation to other policies. As Greek President Karolos Papoulias recently said, «Democracy has absolutely no meaning in the middle of a desert.» Are the measures the EU is taking for the environment sufficient or should they be stricter? The measures are sufficient, as long as the member states and corporations abide by them. Many scientists want up to a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Do you believe that anything can be done under current conditions? For the moment, the target for reducing greenhouse gases set by the EU is 30 percent by 2020 if our international partners do their part, or 20 percent if we go it alone. It was a very important decision by European leaders that sent a very strong political message to third countries, particularly those who are not implementing the Kyoto Protocol, such as the USA, China and India. These countries’ refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol has created a problem, since they are responsible for a considerable percentage of worldwide emissions of pollutants. They believe that imposing a compulsory restriction of CO2 emissions will harm their economies. The differences of opinion are clear but not insurmountable. My intention is to help bring the USA and the other countries into any future agreement on climate change. The special zoning draft framework on tourism has come under fire from politicians and organizations calling for its withdrawal. What is your view of it? I have been closely watching the debate on this issue and I have to say that as soon as I see any possible violation of EU environmental legislation, I will ask for a judiciary investigation to prevent any irreversible damage to the environment, particularly to sensitive ecosystems like the small islands and Natura 2000 regions. Is there a long-term environmental strategy in Greece or is the country simply trying to keep up with EU directives? Recently, a need has been emerging for a long-term environmental strategy in Greece. The debate over the environment has acquired a hopeful dynamic. For example, the recent parliamentary debate showed that all the political parties have specific ideas and proposals for the environment. Do you think that the Greek media can further environmental policies better than governments or political parties? The media has shown that it can help Greek society become our best ally in protecting the environment. Their persistence with environmental issues has helped contribute to an environmental policy in education, something that had been missing for many years. At the same time, I am glad that environmental concerns have entered our country’s political life. After all, the environment, just like democracy, is an indication of the level of a civilization. Greece has promised to close all landfill sites by 2008 but even the existing waste processing plants (XYTA) are being used as ordinary landfills (for example, in Fyli, Attica). What is wrong? The European Commission is closely monitoring efforts to conclude this issue. Nevertheless, our country has to immediately adopt modern methods of waste management. Even the XYTA are outdated. Reducing the volume of garbage must be of immediate concern. That calls for a serious and long-term policy to encourage sorting at site and recycling. Over 50 percent of household waste is recyclable material, such as packaging, paper, plastic and glass. These have no place either in landfills or XYTA. Nevertheless, Greece has made some progress over the past year in recycling urban waste. Government statistics cite 20 percent, whereas the EU average is 29 percent. What is your response to the dilemma «environment or development»? The environment and economic growth are not opposing concepts. Both are incorporated into the policy the EU has decided to implement from now on, that is sustainable development. Protecting the environment, after all, creates growth. New technologies are tested, jobs are created and those who have had the foresight to be the first to invest in the economy’s environmental requirements have profited. From the December issue of Kathimerini supplement Eco.

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