Europe on the brink - green future or industrial wasteland?

| 12th December 2014
Rooms with views ... but where's the vision? European Commission photo by Bruno Coelho via Flickr.
Rooms with views ... but where's the vision? European Commission photo by Bruno Coelho via Flickr.
The EU faces a choice: a green, democratic future of clean prosperity and social justice? Or a dirty future of corporate domination with resurgent nuclear power, expanding fossil fuels, GMO agriculture and weak human and environmental protection? Junckers' Commission represents the latter. We must assert our own vision - or there will be little worth staying in for.
It increasingly appears that the European Commission has decided, in the name of 'jobs', 'investment', 'trade' and 'prosperity' to abandon all the core values that once made the EU attractive.

In the UK's debate over its future membership of the EU, the broad 'progressive' spectrum of voters has long been in the pro-EU camp.

That's not because 'we' like everything about the EU. It's because the EU has offered unmistakable benefits for people and the environment - from the Working Time Directive, limiting the hours employees may be forced to work, to the Habitats & Species Directive, protecting our most precious wildlife, and the Air Quality Directive, which is forcing cuts in atmospheric pollution that are already preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

There is no doubt that a reluctant UK - once the proverbial 'dirty man of Europe' - has been forced to be infinitely cleaner and greener than it would ever have been on its own. The same goes for many other countries. The benefits have been enormous and unmistakeable.

The Dark is Rising

But there is another side to the EU, built as it was on the disreputable foundations of the Coal and Steel Community and the Euratom Treaty. This is a Europe of vested corporate interests, of over-powerful business lobbies, of jealously guarded privilege, secrecy and dodgy back-room political deals, of weak-wristed regulators unwilling or unable to clamp down on corporate abuses.

And today, it is all too clear which aspect of the EU dominates in the Junckers Commission. In the name of "focusing on what truly matters for citizens - jobs, growth and investment" the Commission is reining in desperately needed regulation to give citizens a clean and safe environment.

Proposed laws to reduce the air pollution that's still killing some 400,000 people a year are to be scrapped - if Junckers and his troglodytic henchman Timmermans get their way in the College of Commissioners next Tuesday.

Under the name of 'better regulation' the whole 'circular economy' package to reduce waste to landfill and increase recycling would get bunged into the Commission's capacious paper-shredder.

There have also been powerful calls to make the Habitats and Birds Directives more adaptable to local needs for example to allow Malta to carry on massacring migrating birds. You can be sure that the adaptation would only go one way - to weaken the laws, not to strengthen them.

Nuclear resurgence

The EU has also shown itself to be far too adaptable for its own good in its interpretation of it's all important 'state aid' rules when it comes to nuclear power.

In October the Commission mysteriously approved a support package worth as much as £35 billion for the UK's proposed Hinkley C nuclear power station - deeming, against a mountain of evidence, that it somehow maintained a 'level playing field' in the UK's power market, even as it decimated the country's renewable industries.

It increasingly appears that the European Commission has decided, in the name of 'jobs', 'investment', 'trade' and 'prosperity' to abandon all the core values that once made the EU attractive.

And now, following the UK's inability to raise construction finance in spite of astonishingly generous power prices for nuclear power and a £10 billion construction finance guarantee, the Commission has approved three planned UK nuclear power stations (Hinkley Point C, Wylfa, and Moorside) to appear on its 2015 'infrastructure plan' - putting them in line for as much as €46 billion in loan finance led by the European Investment Bank.

In fact the EU support is meant to be strictly reserved for projects that are economically viable and deliverable in the short term - which is clearly the very opposite of the case as regards the UK's nuclear projects, which may require as much as £100 billion in subsidies and will not be deliverable for well over a decade.

Indeed, the infrastructure plan spells out the problems they face in clear terms, with strong "barriers" to investment. "High construction cost, long payback period is making debt raising difficult", the document reveals.

The same applies to Poland's struggling coal industry - also in line for €8 billion of 'infrastructure' funds to build new lignite coal mines, new power stations and extend the lifetimes of old coal plants that would otherwise have to be shut down.

Sacrificing democracy on the altar of 'free trade'

At the same time the Commission is galloping into deeply unpopular trade and investment deals with the USA and Canada known as TTIP and CETA. Negotiations have been taking place in secret, excluding not just civil society but even MEPs and legislators in national member state Parliaments.

Most vexatious are the 'investor dispute settlement' procedures that would allow investors to sue national government for losses incurred due to regulatory changes affecting their anticipated profits.

As such, governments could be liable for losses caused by tightening pollution laws, raising the minimum wage, applying tighter limits on the release of environmental toxins, reversing the privatisation of public services, or a host of other actions. The damages would be awarded in secret courts composed of corporate lawyers.

TTIP / CETA would also involve 'mutual recognition' of standards between the EU and the USA and Canada, forcing EU consumers to accept North American GMO crops and meat and dairy produce from animals treated with yield-increasing growth hormones, currently banned from EU markets.

Astonishingly, the Commission even refused to accept an offical petition signed by over 1 million EU citizens known as a European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) - on the manifestly false grounds that ECIs can only support the Commission's proposals, and not oppose them.

How much longer can the EU count on our support?

It increasingly appears that the European Commission has decided, in the name of 'jobs', 'investment', 'trade' and 'prosperity' to abandon all the core values that once made the EU attractive to liberal and green minded voters, and abandon itself wholesale to the corporate lobbyists that stalk its corridors and enjoy privileged access to its officials.

And when it comes to a referendum on the UK's continued EU membership,will surely leave progressive voters bereft of any positive enthusiasm to stay in.

Of course, it may be that the UK on its own would pursue even worse social and environmental policies, and that our own clay-footed politicians would be even more ready to sacrifice our rights, liberties and democratic traditions to corporate interests.

But that is to miss the point. To win a close-run election, the most important thing is not to so much win over opponents to your cause, but to get your own vote out on the day.

To get progressives to deliver their pro-EU votes - surely a necessary counterbalance to the now mainstream anti-EU right - we must be offered a positive vision of the Europe we want, and that our children have a right to enjoy.

And that means a green Europe, leading the world in renewable energy technologies, delivering social and environmental benefits to its citizens, founded on a bedrock of social justice, and rebalancing power away from profit-driven corporations, and to the people.


Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.


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