Is the EU an ecofriendly institution?

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For many of those on the left who support Britain's membership of the EU, environmental protection is an important factor. But the EU's pursuit of neoliberalism and its steadfast support for big farmers negate any positive noises it makes about carbon emissions, writes Chris Fuller.

Among those groups urging voters to stay in the EU in next month’s referendum are the Greens and Friends of the Earth (FoE). The Greens state, “It’s only by working with our European neighbours that we can tackle climate change, protect wildlife and reduce pollution.” FoE argue that the EU has created cleaner beaches and drinking water, reduced air pollution and protected wildlife. Both organisations enter some caveats. The FoE website is littered with accounts of EU environmental disasters. The Greens say that the EU needs to be reformed, saying it can be changed “for the common good”.

Given the Tory assault on the environment, retreating to the EU seems appealing. Green activists will rightly point out that the EU took action to stop the use of pesticides that are a serious risk to bees, only for the UK government to use its powers to lift the ban for a temporary period. In the lead up to the Paris climate talks last year the EU announced it would settle for nothing less than a binding treaty. It also backed moves to limit global warming to 1.5°C, going further than the previously agreed 2°C limit. Yet for many activists involved in the movement against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) defending the EU seems counterintuitive. The EU has pushed TTIP hard in secretive talks and campaigners are well aware of how the agreement would undermine environmental controls. However, even beyond TTIP the EU is no friend of the environment.

The Greens and FoE point to a raft of EU directives which they say have benefitted the environment. There is a grain of truth in this. Nature, as Marx points out, is a source of value for capitalism, so capitalist institutions such as the EU will seek to regulate how nature is exploited. EU directives are enshrined into British law. The Habitat Directive crops up in “The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulation 2010”. However, many EU measures stem from international law, such as the Gothenburg Protocol 1999 on air pollution. Therefore it is not true that outside the EU the UK would be without environmental protection.

But the legal system is ultimately a creation of the real economic relations of society and subject to their pressures. This means that directives are often flouted. The UK Supreme Court held the British government to be in breach of the air pollution protocol. Spain, Greece, Hungary and Romania have not fully implemented the EU laws that ban illegal timber imports. Worse still, EU directives often have negative consequences. The Renewable Energy Directive has boosted agri-fuel production and, according to Robbie Blake of FoE, has led to “palm oil…driving deforestation, wildlife loss…and accelerating climate change. Instead of greenwashing palm oil the EU should outright ban its use as a biofuel.” Furthermore, some directives are now under attack. Bird life campaigners were rightly dismayed when the EU decided to review the Birds and Habitats laws to reduce “red tape” and costs.

The elephant in the room for those conservationists arguing to stay in the EU is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). CAP was introduced in 1962 as part of a deal between France and Germany to preserve the former’s standing in the European Economic Community. The policy still accounts for a whopping 40 percent of EU spending and historically was much more. This is no mere side show in the referendum debate.

CAP worked by subsidising farmers and so encouraged overproduction. From 2006 farmers received the Single Farm Payment. The mandatory standards set for these payments included “avoiding encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land”. As a result intensive farming was heavily promoted, leading to the ripping up of hedgerows, heavy use of pesticides and ploughing up of environmentally sensitive areas. Most of the money given out went to large, rich farmers. In 2011 the queen received £415,000 from the scheme.

CAP has been devastating for nature. Since the 1980s farmland birds have declined by 50 percent. FoE itself concludes that CAP contributed to “climate change, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and water pollution”. The policy has put at risk habitats such as the wooded meadows of Sweden and the limestone pavements of Estonia. Subsidies to the rich farmers of Europe were a hammer blow to small farmers in the developing world. More recently CAP has been reformed. The UK government was allowed to transfer up to 15 percent of funding from the Single Farm Payment to rural development measures including conservation. Unsurprisingly it transferred less than this. According to the Wildlife Trusts even these changes do “not amount to a green policy for agriculture”.

One requirement for farmers to grow at least three crops may lead to more marginal lands being brought into use with damaging consequences for wildlife. FoE concludes that the “CAP reform process was business as usual”.
At sea Europe’s policies have been just as devastating. The EU arranged for large boats from Europe to fish off West Africa in return for access payments, two-thirds of which were paid by the EU. Local fishers were thrown into poverty and ecosystems were destroyed. African governments complained about illegal shipments of fish to the Canaries but the EU refused to act after pressure from the fish corporations.

At the end of the Paris climate change talks last year Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, claimed the credit, saying the EU has “long been the global leader in climate action”. A Greenpeace spokesperson more accurately stated that the deal “highlighted the inadequacy of the EU’s own weak commitments on carbon emissions”. For what it is worth, the UK’s mandatory targets on carbon emissions are tougher than those of the EU. Britain has a goal to reduce greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2025 and a legal requirement to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050. The EU aims for a 40 percent reduction between 1990 and 2030. In March the Commission took the decision not to aim for further reductions, effectively casting to the wind the stand it took in the Paris talks for a limit of 1.5°C of global warming.

Europe’s key failure on climate change is its Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). The ETS was established in 2005 and is the largest such trading scheme in the world. It seeks to use market mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions, allowing some companies to pollute by trading their carbon output with reductions elsewhere. In 2013 environmental groups concluded that ETS offset projects had led to an increase in emissions worldwide and that up to two-thirds of carbon credits did not represent real carbon reductions. We should not be surprised at either the method or the failure. The capitalist market is built into the EU’s DNA and this conditions all its policies.

To a limited extent the Greens are aware of all this, stating, “We know the EU isn’t perfect. But to make the EU better for every European we need to stay in and reform it.” This is wishful thinking. The Corporate Europe Observatory estimates that there are 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels, nearly one for every member of EU staff. As the Guardian observes, “From shale to climate change policies, from car exhaust rules to renewables, from carbon capture technologies to carbon trading schemes, the energy lobby is highly active and successful in Brussels.”

When business bids, Brussels bends. In 2012, for example, the airline companies successfully stopped EU moves to include international air travel in its cap and trade schemes. A directive aimed at combating soil degradation (in part made worse by the EU’s own policies) was stopped in its tracks by pressure from the National Farmers’ Union and its equivalents on the continent. The idea of reforming Europe for the benefit of ordinary people is a costly delusion. As John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, concludes, “There is no realistic chance of diverting EU institutions away from the capitalist rule that lies at the heart of the European project.”

The debate about Europe within the environmentalist movement is a reflection of a wider debate about where the power lies to end climate chaos and degradation of nature. After the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 some campaigners retreated into working within the system and took the decision to effectively wind down the organisation that had put over 50,000 activists onto the streets of London in the magnificent “Wave” protest. Others drew the opposite conclusion and proceeded to mobilise 400,000 in New York in 2014. This was followed at the end of last year by demonstrations of 70,000 in London and 20,000 in Paris, the latter in the face of a state ban. Critically many did not see Paris as the end of the campaign, hence the very welcome “Going Backwards on Climate Change” marches this month.

Such protests are in the spirit of the seafarers in Britain who stopped nuclear dumping at sea; of Solidarity in Poland which forced the closure of some of the country’s most toxic plants; of the Vestas workers who occupied their wind turbine factory against closure and of the unofficial strikes in Australia in 1976 against uranium exports. Such movements can be boosted by an “exit” vote that will throw the leading institutions of capital in Britain, the Tory party and the CBI, into a tailspin. When their side is weakened we can take advantage. That’s far better than being locked into the EU pillars of power that are laying waste to the planet.