The Latest Power Grab


February 28, 2007 19:02 |by Steve McGiffen

how concern for the environment is being used to undermine democracy

Ever since the late 1980s with its drive to create a single internal market for the whole of the European Community, the European Commission has been involved in repeated attempts to extend its powers. These powers are strictly defined in treaties which demarcate what are known as 'competences' between the EU's centralised institutions and the governments of the member states.

In successive treaties ever more competences have been transferred to Brussels. This not only means that decision-making power has been moved further from the people. It means that it has been removed from the electorates of the member states and handed to the unelected officials of the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) and the appointed judges of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In general, opposition to the activities of these bodies should come naturally to any socialist, whatever his or her feelings about European integration may be. Over the last fifteen or so years, the direction of policy from the centre has been blatantly pro-corporate, favouring employers over workers, big firms over small, agri-business over small farmers, and the market over human beings in general. This has helped to bring about a rethink among many on the left who in the darkest days of Thatcherism had begun to see 'Europe' as a possible deliverance from the government's viciously anti-working class policies. It has also meant that the dilemma of what to do should the EU ever propose anything which under normal circumstances progressives would support has rarely had to be faced.

Environmental policy has long been one area in which EU action has on occasions been positive. Most aspects of environmental policy are genuine cross-border issues where international cooperation makes sense. For this reason, even EU critics have put any doubts they may have about the legitimacy of this particular kind of international cooperation to the back of their minds, giving support to a range of measures aimed at such problems as air quality and water pollution, the reduction of harmful chemicals in the environment, and nature conservation.

EU action is not, of course, always satisfactory. The recent watering-down of the REACH plan to control chemicals in consumer goods is a case in point. In some cases it is positively wrong, as in the use of emissions trading as a means of addressing climate change. Even in such cases, however, arguments tend to be about policy, not competence. The European Commission is now taking advantage of this in order to pursue one of the most audacious power-grabs in its long history of empire-building.

Until recently, criminal law was regarded as being within the exclusive competence of the member states. A state which cannot make its own criminal law is no more than a province. The so-called 'war on terror' has already breached this vital area of sovereignty, allowing the US to dictate other countries' approach not only to combating terrorism but to a whole range of matters which seem to have only the most tenuous link to that worthy goal. Now the Commission wants to abolish the sovereign right of the EU's member states to decide what constitutes a criminal breach of environmental law and what punishments should be imposed on those guilty of such.

Increasingly, people understand the depths of the environmental crisis which we are facing and support extremely strong action against those responsible. I share these sentiments wholeheartedly. So why should I oppose giving Brussels the right to tell a member state that action must be taken against a certain individual or corporation which has broken environmental law? Isn't this simply a way of ensuring that the 'polluter pays'? Isn't opposition to it simply kneejerk Europhobia? How can one support EU action on polluting emissions and then oppose the EU having the right to insist on effective punishments for the guilty? These are reasonable questions, but those with experience of the European Commission's modus operandi will probably be able to guess the answers.

The Commission purports to believe that that it is in a better position to come up with suitable punishments than are the member states. The current division of responsibilities is clear. Laws may be made centrally, but it is up to national authorities to enforce them and to determine appropriate sanctions.

The Commission claims that this is not working, that the member states are not enforcing the law.

Much as we would all like to see the irresponsible corporate decision-makers who are responsible for most pollution dealt with severely, the problem of enforcement has in fact little to do with the severity or otherwise of punishment. When legislation is written minimum standards should be included relating to the strength and competence of inspectorates. International agreements should be drawn up addressing, through a vigorous educational effort, the shortage of relevant expertise. It is this lack which means that enforcement of good environmental law is often patchy.

The exertion of undue influence by corporate lobbyists must also take the blame, of course. Yet this undue influence is, however strong it may be in national capitals, at its most powerful in the corridors of the European Commission's Brussels complex.

The real proof of what's going on lies in the clear fact that if environmental laws are being flouted, the means of redress already exist. The Commission can simply take to court any member state it believes is failing to adhere to the law. Individuals who believe the law is not being followed also have the right to mount a legal challenge.

The Commission's proposal has nothing to do with improving implementation and everything to do with extending its powers into ever more areas. The implementation of environmental law must be improved and sanctions on polluters strengthened, but this is a matter for the member states.

It's simple: a people which no longer has the right to say what is a crime, who is a criminal and how they should be punished is a subject people.

Steve McGiffen is a former environmental adviser to the European Parliament's United European Left political group (GUE-NGL) and edits Spectrezine. This article was adapted from his monthly column in The Morning Star