Should environmentalists think twice about their support for the EU?

Brussels is a haven for the fossil fuel and motor industry lobbies, while the EU is increasingly undermining its own environmental protections.

Harry Blain
6 April 2016
Anti-TTIP protest

An anti-TTIP march in Brighton. Flickr/Global Justice Now. Some rights reserved.In a widely shared article for openDemocracy UK in February, Caroline Lucas, MP, wrote: “To me, it’s obvious that being part of the EU makes sense when it comes to protecting our environment.” “Some of our dirtiest power stations have been closed thanks to EU directives” she wrote in an earlier piece for the Guardian. “In the hunt for climate criminals, anger is surely much better directed at our own prime minister.”

Prominent environmentalists are taking a similar line. The Guardian’s George Monbiot, for instance, argues that “what Cameron described in parliament as ‘pettifogging bureaucracy’ is the rules that prevent children from being poisoned by exhaust fumes, rivers from being turned into farm sewers.” “On jobs, health and wildlife”, he concludes, “the European Union is often all that stands between us and unfettered corporate power.” “The co-ordinated power of the union gives the ability to stand up to the amassed power of the world's biggest businesses”, openDemocracy UK’s Adam Ramsay agrees.

Looking at these arguments, and with the Green Party launching its “#GreenerIn” campaign, it is worth taking a critical look at the evidence and asking: how green is the European Union?

“How dare the EU tell us what do? It's our pollution and we'll choke on it if we want to!”

So reads a tongue-in-cheek comment on a news story from November 2014: “EU court rules UK government must clean up dangerous air pollution.” Earlier in the year, the European Commission had also threatened legal action against the UK “for its failure to cut excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide” the “main pre-cursor for ground-level ozone causing major respiratory problems and leading to premature death.”

“Air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk”, according to the World Health Organisation, which estimates that, globally, 3.7 million deaths were attributable to outdoor air pollution in 2012. So while the right-wing press might decry being “dictated to” by Brussels, we could equally conclude, as the then Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle did, that EU “meddling” on this issue is instead “a damning indictment of the government’s total failure to tackle the UK’s air pollution.” Along with legal air pollution limits, the EU’s Habitats Directive is also frequently cited as a vital environmental protection potentially threatened by “Brexit.”

“Investment protection”

Despite providing these protections, the European Union is currently enthusiastically promoting a “polluters’ paradise”: “Investor-to-State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) systems, which allow corporations to file lawsuits against states in shadowy international tribunals. One example is the €1 billion action brought by the Swedish energy giant Vatenfall against the German government in the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an institution of the World Bank group based in Washington, DC. Vatenfall argued that the climate-protection requirements being imposed on its coal-fired power plant along the Elbe River in Hamburg would entail "significant additional costs" for the company.

After the two parties settled out of court in 2010, Vatenfall sued Germany again in 2012 for losses incurred as a result of Angela Merkel’s plan to phase out nuclear power plants, with the German government coughing up over €3.2 million in legal fees from the beginning of the arbitration in 2012 until mid-October 2014. Chevron has attempted to use similar tribunals against Ecuador after being ordered to pay $9.5 billion in compensation for “the contamination of a Rhode-Island-sized section of Ecuador’s Amazon.”

ISDS is, as increasing numbers of Europeans know, a central part of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Currently, around 8% of US companies operating in the EU are covered by ISDS under Bilateral Investment Treaties; TTIP would cover all US-firms: more than 47,000.

“Of the 149,399 responses” to the EU’s consultation on TTIP, “97% of participants… voiced either a general rejection of TTIP or opposition to ISDS in TTIP.” But “investment protection” remains a key pillar of the proposed treaty. Caroline Lucas today writes that “some of our dirtiest power stations have been closed thanks to EU directives”; perhaps tomorrow TTIP will be keeping them open. 

Of course, as Adam Ramsay argues, “Westminster has been pushing TTIP within the EU and would happily sign up to just such a treaty as fast as Cameron could whip out his biro.” It might be added that the UK government is among the leading advocates of the Juncker Commission’s less-known “Better Regulation” agenda, described in a recent report by the European Environmental Bureau and others as “an exercise that was originally about ‘cutting red tape’” that “has started to unravel the legislative safety net protecting people and the environment.”

The British government’s enthusiasm for initiatives like TTIP and “Better Regulation” suggests that a vote for “Brexit” would not automatically lead to an escape from “investment protection” or deregulation. But the European Commission’s willingness to support and expand this agenda calls into question Caroline Lucas’ claim that “even today, our EU membership offers us protection from the Tories' worst instincts.”

From ExxonMobil to the European Commission to Saudi Aramco

But why is Brussels promoting such aggressive “business-friendly” legislation when not long ago many on the British left were speaking enthusiastically of a “social Europe”?

It might have something to do with the fact that Brussels is, by some estimates, “second only to Washington in the concentration of those seeking to affect legislation”, with around 30,000 lobbyists in the city, “nearly matching the 31,000 staff employed by the European Commission.” As in Westminster, influence does not just come through traditional lobbying, but through the ease with which individuals can transition between the private sector and public office.

The Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) is the most comprehensive source on this, highlighting, for example, how “one in three (9 out of 26) outgoing commissioners who left office in 2014 have gone through the 'revolving door' into roles in corporations or other organisations with links to big business”; such as Viviane Reding, who went on to sit on the board of the mining company Nyrstar.

Fossil fuel giants are well-represented, as documented in CEO’s November 2015 report “Brussels, big energy, and revolving doors: a hothouse for climate change”. Among the several cases examined in the report, Marcus Lippold’s CV is particularly impressive.

Lippold, according to his LinkedIn profile, “is Principal Representative for Europe and Russia, responsible for regional corporate planning and policy for Saudi Aramco [the world’s biggest oil company].” Previously, “he worked for the European Commission's Energy Directorate, first as Senior Energy Economist and later as Coordinator for international energy relations” and “prior to working for the EU Institutions, Marcus had been working for ExxonMobil for many years, holding various management positions in the company's Downstream and Midstream divisions.”

As Corporate Europe Observatory point out, the role with Aramco is “an officially-sanctioned sabbatical,” so the EU is in fact telling Lippold he can “go to work for the biggest oil company in the world, while maintaining a 'right to return' to the Commission.”

Less than a month after CEO published this report, they revealed that Aleksandra Tomczak, formerly of the World Coal Association, had become EU coal policy coordinator, while the Guardian reported that the EU gave ExxonMobil “access to confidential negotiating strategies considered too sensitive to be released to the European public” during its negotiations with the United States over TTIP.

The motor industry

It is rare for the “the voice of the motor industry” in the UK, the Society of Motor Manufacturer and Traders (SMMT), and the Green Party, to find common ground. Nonetheless, on the question of Europe, the SMMT recently declared that 77% of their members “say remaining in Europe is best for their business”, while adding that “reform remains high on the agenda – especially the need to reduce complexity, encourage financial reform and consistently apply regulations.”

The SMMT expressed strong backing for the European Commission’s CARS 2020 Action Plan, centred on both “environmental protection” and “smart regulation”, which aims to promote “competitiveness proofing” and to “reduce administrative burden.”

The motor industry is also well-connected in Brussels. Volkswagen – the company sued by the US Justice Department for up to $46 billion for cheating on emissions tests – sits on a number of European Commission expert groups, such as the expert group on alternative fuels (which also includes the likes of BP, Shell, Statoil and Exxon Mobil); the expert group on intelligent transport systems for urban areas; and the Horizon 2020 Experts' Group on “Nature-Based Solutions and Re-Naturing Cities”, which is chaired by the Secretary-General of the Volkswagen Foundation. VW spent €3.3 million on EU lobbying in 2014.

Promising to “tighten the rules” after the Volkswagen revelations, the European Commission appointed a High Level Group on the Automotive Industry, whose members included the leading representatives of the motor industry: the European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA), the Association des Constructeurs Européns d'Automobile (ACEA) and the European Council for Motor Trades and Repairs (CECRA).

Elzbieta Bienkowska, the European Commissioner for industrial policy, then scaled back initial plans for tighter testing regulations, with the EU’s Technical Committee for Motor Vehicles eventually approving proposals that “would allow real-world NOx [Nitrogen Oxide] emissions to exceed limits by as much as 110% until January 2020”, while “cars would also be allowed to exceed EU limits – set to be 80g/km in 2020 – by up to 50% permanently.” This, of course, was almost exactly in line with the “advice” offered by the motor industry.

Greener In or Out?

Despite the influence of big polluters in Brussels and the Commission’s backing for “investment protection”, some of the UK’s leading naturalists did not write to the Environment Secretary warning of the risks of “Brexit” for no reason. “As individuals who have spent much of our working lives seeking to deliver a greener Britain, we know from experience that EU coordination, legislation and policy has been critical to improving the UK’s environmental quality,” they wrote. "It's vital to recognise that virtually the entire legal protection for our environment here in Britain derives from European safeguards”, the former chair of the Environment Agency added. “Our air, water and land are kept clean by European laws.”

Although this contains some hyperbole – for example the hugely important Clean Air Act of 1956 did not require EU directives – it is difficult to argue with the statement: “If the UK were to leave the EU it is very unclear which elements of existing European [environment] policy would continue to apply to the UK.”

This real uncertainty is, understandably, pushing many environmentalists to support “remain.” But by now it should at least be clear that the EU is not “all that stands between us and unfettered corporate power”; does not “stand up to the amassed power of the world's biggest businesses”; and is a friend, not an enemy, of David Cameron’s Conservative government. 

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