The European Union: not perfect, but the best foundation for a sustainable future.
In these elections the future of the European Union (EU) is at stake. And with it, all it has achieved and still has to achieve to protect our environment. Dear reader, you matter, because you are entitled to vote in the European Parliament elections in May 2019. Please use this opportunity.
These elections are primarily about defending the idea of the European project, about defending civic space against destructive nationalism and populism. However, the elections also represent a chance to better protect our planet.
Decisions that are hugely important for the environment such as the vote on EU’s future Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) are going to be approved by the new European Parliament. This vote will indicate whether Europe and the EU will head in a more sustainable direction. Right now the EU, having evolved from economic communities and concerns about peace in Europe, is far away from being a frontrunner of sustainability. But there is potential to improve. This article wants to shed light on some civil society ideas on how to ensure a more sustainable future of Europe.
European solutions to tackle environmental challenges
There are several reasons why environmental challenges – climate change and biodiversity loss being two of the most concerning ones – have to be addressed at European level. The principle of subsidiarity specifies that the Union should act only if the objectives of the proposed action can be better achieved at Union level. Nearly all the problems we have deteriorating the quality of our environment fall into this category. Firstly, this is because environmental issues often do not respect national borders – just think of the good status of the water in a river that crosses frontiers, think of birds that fly from one country to another, or think of the urgent discussion on climate change that threatens all life, including us humans. But this is also because European solutions ensure a level playing field for citizens and stakeholders. If only few Member States set good standards it might create costs for actors in those Member States. But if a holistic approach is taken and all do it, this can drive innovation. In addition, action at the European level is less susceptible to short-term decision making driven by political populism. The EU’s law making procedures ensure a certain level of stability, this is particularly important when it comes to the environment. The ruling on the Polish Bialowieza forest illustrates also the value of having an effective Court of Justice.
For those of you asking ”why Europe?”, from an environmentalist perspective it is simple: There is no alternative to fundamental principles such as the rule of law. We should value EU’s success stories of environmental protection, such as the (not yet fully implemented) conservation network “Natura 2000” (which by the way helped to save the German “Hambacher Forst” from being cut for coal digging), the Water Framework Directive (which is under evaluation, but already helped to better assess impacts of projects to water bodies), or the air quality standards of the EU (which enabled NGOs like the German Umwelthilfe to win court cases on driving bans).
The Europe that’s being discussed and the Europe we want
The current European Commission with its president Jean-Claude Juncker has not actively engaged in shaping a more sustainable Europe. With the failure of the 2003 Convention on the Future of Europe and recent challenges to the Union like Brexit or the debate on migration there was no appetite for radical changes. Instead, the European Commission started a brainstorming process, publishing several “Reflection Papers” and a bigger “White Paper” on the future of Europe. They mostly follow the structure of laying down different scenarios (from business as usual to doing less or being more ambitious). One of the issues with this process is that the outputs are non-binding. Overarching EU policies – such as the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) or the CAP – that are currently discussed will determine important aspects of the future EU for nearly the next decade. It also remains unclear how the next Commission will follow-up on it. This Commission foresees culminating the process at the informal European Council meeting in Sibiu on the 9th of May 2019. The European Commission also opened a citizens’ consultation on the future of Europe which will be open until the summit takes place.
Reacting to the five scenarios presented in the European Commission’s White Paper on the Future of Europe, a broad group of civil society organisations presented their “6th scenario” on a Sustainable Europe for its Citizens”. Also other alliances are preparing positions in the run-up to the elections for the next European Parliament. The coalition of the ten largest environmental organisations in Brussels, the “Green 10”, adopted a manifesto with 4 priorities and 10 policy asks that can be seen as the guidebook for a more environmentally friendly EU. These requests have in common that they ask for taking the SDGs as overarching objective for the next presidential priorities, replacing the “Juncker priorities” that are purely focusing on “jobs and growth”. Besides adjusting these priorities, environmentalists see the need for governance changes. This could mean having Vice-Presidents both for climate action and for natural resources, to deliver on the SDGs, but also changes to the “Better Regulation” agenda of the European Commission. In fact, the future EU should have a “Good Regulation” agenda with better law-making through more transparent consultation processes, impact assessment, etc. The focus needs to be shifted away from assessing only economic costs of legislation to looking at what regulation is needed to serve public interests such as environmental protection. The new regulation guidelines could be based on a “Think Sustainability First” principle, and should seek to produce effective and binding acts that are sufficiently ambitious to tackle the environmental challenges. The “Good Regulation” agenda should be complemented by a “Better Implementation” initiative, to fully ensure compliance of Member States with the existing environmental acquis.
C. Your voice matters
In order to continue the road towards a more sustainable Europe, I strongly ask you to participate in the elections. Don’t think your vote wouldn’t matter. From the environmentalist’s point of view it is first of all about getting the own organisations’ members and supporters of the environment to vote. Assessments of the 2014 election showed that the turnout was highest amongst older voters, despite the fact that the younger voters should be more concerned about their future. Some 51% of the 55+ group voted in the European elections, while only 28% of the 18-24 age group did. Analysts do not expect that picture to change fundamentally. As the composition and power of the political groups will substantially differ this time, it is important to support democratic parties that push for protection of the environment. But it’s not just about you going out to vote. Recent surveys show that only 41% of respondents know that the next European Parliament election will take place in 2019. So it is up to you to also talk to your family, friends and neighbours about it.
Dr. Raphael Weyland, German environmental lawyer
Head of the Brussels Office of the German Nature Conservation Union NABU. At the moment he is supporting the umbrella organisation BirdLife Europe on horizontal issues relating to the Elections of the European Parliament. BirdLife Europe chairs the Green10 alliance of the 10 largest environment organisations during the first 6 months of 2019.
 There i.a. are Reflection Papers touching on Finance, Defence, the Monetary Union, Globalization and the Social Dimension of the EU. The 30.01.2019 the European Commission also published a Reflection Paper on a sustainable Europe by 2030, see: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-19-701_en.htm.
 Even though it is not clear how the European Commission will reflect the citizens’ contributions, the author recommends participating: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/future-europe/consultation-future-europe_en.