Environment under pressure as EU targets jobs and growth

Concerns that the environment is being down-graded in EU policy-making have been fuelled by reports that major initiatives from the European Commission are to be delayed, and potentially watered down. Meanwhile, leaked documents reveal that Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett is struggling to ensure that economic concerns do not take precedence in the revised EU sustainable development strategy.

In recent years, the EU has placed increasing emphasis on jobs and economic growth. So environmentalists drew some comfort earlier this year, when the flagship "Lisbon strategy" for growth was relaunched under the overarching framework of sustainable development (ENDS Report 363, p 59 ).

However, environmental policy remains on the back foot. It has now emerged that the Commission's long-awaited "thematic strategies" on air quality and the marine environment will be delayed until September at the earliest - though a draft of the marine strategy has leaked out (see pp 50-51 ).

The two strategies were due to be released in July. At least one of them - on air quality - is being delayed because the Commission President José Manuel Barroso is concerned over the costs of delivering it, even though cost-benefit work by the Commission shows strong positive benefits (ENDS Report 364, pp 43-44 ). Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas is reported to be worried that the first major policy initiative to emerge on his watch may be diluted.

The two thematic strategies - along with another five on the urban environment, waste prevention and recycling, sustainable resource use, soil management and sustainable pesticide use - were supposed to be at the heart of the Commission's sixth environmental action plan. The idea was that they will direct EU policy in these areas for the next 20 years.

However, the Environment Directorate has come under pressure to hold off publication until all seven strategies are complete - and then to conduct impact assessments of their combined effects. This approach, unheard of in any other policy sphere, would delay publication by at least six months and would probably lead to pressure for less stringent actions.

President Barroso has called a special meeting of all Commissioners on 20 July to discuss the environmental strategies. The aim, a spokesperson said, is "to have a debate on the balance to strike between the costs and the benefits before [the Commission] adopts them."

  • More insights into the battle over EU environmental policy come from leaked correspondence from Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett and the Treasury. This reveals that Mrs Beckett is battling to ensure that the revised EU sustainable development strategy does not downgrade environmental and social issues.

    The reframing of the Lisbon agenda in the context of sustainable development has upped the stakes for the revision of the sustainable development strategy - and increased other Departments' interest in its content.

    At the EU summit in June, European leaders agreed a declaration and set of guiding principles to shape the strategy (see pp 46-47 ). But the leaked documents suggest that the Treasury lobbied hard to recast the definition of sustainable development in the declaration to "prioritise the economics pillar above the social and environmental pillar" in an attempt to keep Europe focused on growth and jobs.

    In May, Mrs Beckett wrote to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw warning that any attempt to push this approach "would cause the UK serious reputational damage." "To give [sustainable development] some other meaning at the EU level than the one we adopt domestically and globally would be inexplicable and probably counter-productive," she argued.

    "We must look ahead to the UK Presidency when we will receive the Commission's proposals for a revised strategy," Mrs Beckett went on. "If we are to maintain credibility in this process we should not be placing ourselves at the extreme margins of the debate."

    Mrs Beckett conceded that a "short-term" focus on the economy is appropriate - but insisted that the UK should avoid "the implication that economic growth should be pursued without regard to environmental or social objectives or that countries need to achieve a certain level of wealth before they need to address environmental and social challenges."

    The Treasury responded within days. A draft of the letter from Treasury Minister John Healey to Jack Straw has also been seen by ENDS. In it, Mr Healey says: "I would seek to make clear the prioritisation of the economics pillar over and above the environment and social pillars in the context of sustainable development, in order to maintain the hard won focus on jobs and growth secured at Spring Council.

    "We must therefore do all we can to support Barroso in his efforts to refocus the Lisbon agenda and to convince the doubters that the pursuit of growth and jobs is not inconsistent with social and environmental sustainability - rather it is a pre-requisite for it."

    Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Norman Baker, who obtained the documents, said: "It is deeply depressing that elements in Government are questioning the well-established concept of sustainability. The Treasury appears to be reverting to 1950s thought processes - just get the jobs right, everything else will trickle down. And poor old Beckett is once again left fighting her corner without any support from the parts of Government that matter."

    As things turned out, Mrs Beckett appears to have won this particular battle - by a whisker. The declaration agreed in June departs from international and UK definitions of sustainable development. But it states up-front that sustainable development "is about safeguarding the earth's capacity to support life in all its diversity" and is aimed at "the continuous improvement of life on earth of both current and future generations" - and avoids any explicit ranking of the economic, social and environmental pillars.

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