Monday, 18 February 2013

EU's environmental failures expose its structural flaws

EUobserver reports today yet another high profile failure in the EU's grand-style, centralised policy-making, adding to a list that includes, most notably, the huge waste and imbalances of the Common Agricultural Policy, the depleted fish stocks of the Common Fisheries Policy and the euro austerity crisis.

Around 75 'green' NGOs are calling jointly for the EU to scrap its flagship environmental scheme for trading carbon emissions - the ETS - accusing the scheme of actually increasing carbon emissions instead of reducing them.

According to the EU, the ETS scheme is "a cornerstone of the European Union's policy to combat climate change and its key tool for reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively." It covers more than 11,000 power stations and industrial plants in 31 countries, as well as airlines.

But environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth and Carbon Trade Watch, say that by distracting from the task of reducing consumption and dependency on fossil fuels, the scheme has caused emissions to rise.

They also highlight how the EU-ETS facility to import cheaper emissions permits from abroad in return for the polluter supporting 'offset' projects in developing countries has provoked land-grabs, human rights violations and related environmental damage in poverty-stricken regions.

'Life support'

In recent months the EU-ETS has been described as being on "life-support" due to a collapse in the price of its carbon permits - the opposite of the scheme's intention. The EU hoped that higher carbon permit prices would incentivise businesses to cut emissions or invest in clean technologies.

Companies have blamed government handouts of too many free permits in order to limit the initial impact of the scheme on the highest polluters and are supporting a European Commission proposal to suspend future permit auctions, hoping that consumption of credits in the interim will prop up prices. MEPs on the European Parliament's environment committee are due to vote tomorrow on the Commission's proposed reform.

The scheme's faults mirror the EU's similarly ill-judged rush to promote biofuels through dramatic targets and offering generous subsidies to grow fuel crops. The result has been large-scale deforestation in developing countries as land was cleared for growing these newly lucrative crops, together with a dramatic rise in food prices as farmers cashed in by switching millions of acres from food production.

Faulty structure

There are huge questions here, of course, about the merits or otherwise of biofuels and about how best to manage and preserve our natural environment.

But t
he far more fundamental question these failures should provoke is about whether the EU represents the best structure for effective decision-making on the now wide range of policy areas affecting our lives over which it has control.

The course of the EU's development has now demonstrated repeatedly through the increasing number of 'grands projets' emerging from its structure that over-centralised decisions, made by institutions too far removed from democratic accountability, are much more likely to be of poor quality and detrimental to Europe's security and prosperity.

Break down the elements of EU decision-making and its easy to see how this comes about.

First policy ideas are boiled down to the lowest common denominator in order to secure majority support in the Council of Ministers, often involving persuasion based not on the merits of the policy in question but on horse-trading over the benefits a country or countries could gain from a completely separate forthcoming EU decision. 

Second, the counter-balancing and constructive pressure of having to answer to voters on pain of losing their jobs, perks and privileges is not something felt by the vast majority involved in make EU decisions. Not even large numbers of MEPs who, thanks to the list system the European Parliament employs, enjoy safe seats by virtue of being near the top of their party's slate of candidates.

Third, majority voting on most policy areas in the Council of Ministers prevents those countries that disagree with an EU policy or strategy (perhaps rightly) opting out of its effects, resulting in these poor quality decisions and the resulting damage being imposed uniformly on a pan-continental scale.

Finally, when policies go wrong, the cumbersome structure and huge turning circle of the EU means that changing course and limiting the damage takes years. Despite EU biofuels policy having being roundly criticised now for several years, no change is expected before 2020. Even then, the EU's inherent faults mean new decisions are unlikely to be better constructed.

EU unfit

The growing evidence of failed policies confirms the view of many that the EU's structure simply isn't fit to make decisions of the quality required in the huge areas of policy with which it is today entrusted.

Its activities on the environment have shown vividly the damage its poor decisions can cause, but this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg relative to the effect of EU decisions in the many other policy areas in which it governs with longer or more obscure feedback cycles. 

Damage to the environment is bad enough. The detrimental impact of intrinsicly poor EU decision-making on a wide range of policies imposed over an entire continent should give far greater cause for worry with respect to Europe's future prospects.

The best solution would be for the accountable leaders of the EU's member governments to open their eyes and take steps to reinvent fundamentally the EU's structure to become more flexible, dynamic, accountable and attuned to Europe's 21st century needs rather than those of the 1950s.

Since the multiplicity of interests propping up the existing structure makes this highly unlikely, it is Britain's relationship with the EU that must in fact be rebuilt from first principles - those of trade, co-operation and cultural exchange, rejecting outdated and flawed centralisation.

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