The EU is seen as a defender of the environment, but is this still true today?
Caroline Lucas MP and others have argued that the UK’s membership of the EU has led to significant environmental protection measures that UK governments would have been unlikely to take themselves . Lucas cites pollution control and wildlife protection as important EU measures. As she says, “Pollution and environmental degradation don’t respect national borders.”
Few people would argue with this. But it’s a big step from there to say that our environment will always be safe in the EU of the future. The current European Commission, which took office at the end of 2014, has a less sympathetic view of environmental protection than its predecessors. For the clearest available evidence of this, it is worth reading in full Chairman Juncker’s letter of appointment to the Environment Commissioner, Karmenu Vella . It’s worth remembering that of all the EU institutions, only the Commission can propose legislation.
In the past, Environment Commissioners have been able, by and large, to plough their own furrow. Not any more. The Juncker Commission has several Vice-Presidents, whose job is to coordinate the work of the single portfolio Commissioners.
Juncker’s letter to Vella’s clearly limits his room for manoeuvre:
“You will, in particular, contribute to projects steered and coordinated by the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness and the Vice-President for Energy Union. For other initiatives requiring a decision from the Commission, you will, as a rule, liaise closely with the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.”
And then, just to rub it in:
“The EU has a well-developed environment policy with a rather complete and mature legal framework.”
In other words, no more legislation, please. Unless, of course, it is to simplify and render more business-friendly existing legislation. Vella is told that his first specific task is:
“Continuing to overhaul the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose. In the first part of the mandate, I would ask you to carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation.”
No prizes for guessing what “modern” means.
None of this is to argue for or against Brexit. It’s simply to remind ourselves that in public policy, as with investments, past performance is no guide to the future.