The environmentalist’s case for Europe

The environmentalist’s case for Europe

The May / June 2004 edition of Green Futures magazine featured an opinion piece by John Ashton on the connection between environmentalism and the Future of Europe.

The environmentalist’s case for Europe

Pundits are predicting record low turnouts in the European elections this June – though only heroic levels of apathy would outdo the 4 percent registered by the citizens of Sunderland in 1999.

The new constitution for Europe will when it is finally agreed shape the lives of 450 million people in the enlarged European Union. Yet the Convention on the Future of Europe that crafted it has been more an exercise in “We the elites” than “We the Peoples”.

Should environmentalists worry? Here are five good reasons why they cannot achieve their goals without a strong and dynamic EU in touch with the people of Europe.

First, all but the most local environmental problems transcend political boundaries. They cannot be addressed without pooling sovereignty – whether in managing a regional watershed or the global atmosphere.

Sharing sovereignty is difficult. The EU is the world’s only sustained experiment at doing it. What the EU has achieved to date is an example of what is possible in building shared solutions to shared problems while maintaining the diversity of cultures and nations. It is a model available on an open source basis for application in other settings.

Second, weight counts in global politics. The EU, because of its pooled sovereignty, has a more powerful voice in the global diplomacy of the environment than would its member countries individually. The Kyoto Protocol would be long dead without the EU and no-one should imagine that Tony Blair, for all his commitment to climate change, could have saved it on his own.

Third, an environmentalist foreign policy must be multilateralist. Only through the application of multilaterally agreed rules can the cross-border costs of self-interested national behaviour be mitigated.

But multilateralism in its current form is a relatively recent experiment. It is under threat: from lack of political and financial investment in its instruments, from those in the US who see it as inimical to US interests, and from the short attention span of modern politics in the face of long haul problems.

It is falling to this generation to choose between a global open society based on rules equitably agreed, and a fortress world in which gated communities of power and wealth look after their own. On the front line in that choice is the EU. Europeans know that multilateralism can work because they have made it work in Europe. Environmentalists need the EU to prevail as champion of multilateral approaches elsewhere.

Fourth, environmental goals can only be achieved as part of a wider social, economic and political vision. The climate negotiations are as much about how we organise our economies and prevent global instability as they are about environmental regulation in any narrow sense.

Nobody would argue that the EU’s sense of its role in the world has yet achieved this level of coherence. But its new Security Strategy acknowledges that Europe’s security depends on managing the interconnectedness of the global infrastructure in energy, transport, and information; that environmental stress and competition for natural resources outside Europe undermines security within it; and that Europe’s “diplomatic efforts, trade and environmental policies should follow the same agenda”.

Environmentalists have an overwhelming interest in the emergence of this new diplomacy based on interconnectedness. A strong EU will take us there more quickly.

Fifth, innovation is essential for the environment. But that innovation needs to be multi-dimensional – not just technological innovation, but legal, social, financial, institutional and cultural as well. This demands markets, capital, knowledge and choice to be organised on a continental scale. Nowhere is innovation being harnessed with greater effort to the requirements of sustainable development than in the EU. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme is as significant for sustainable development as any recent policy adopted anywhere.

Not even the most ardent Europhile would claim that the EU has achieved perfection on any of these fronts. It is hypocrisy for those who defend the EU’s agricultural protectionism to assert credentials in the effort against global poverty.

But sustainable development is a journey. Direction and rate of progress matter more than the precise point that has been reached at any time. By that measure, environmentalists and champions of the European project are on the same side.

So environmentalists should worry that the European project has lost touch with European people. They should overcome the ambivalence towards Europe that has long characterised their movement. They should make it their business to build a new vocation for an enlarged EU as an exemplar and driver of sustainable development globally.

They should start by voting in the European elections.


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