Environment

The Crisis and Europe’s Environmental Roll-Back

It may not been an issue in the eyes of the Greek or European press, but the fact remains that the WWF article, entitled “The financial crisis heralds the need for a deep ecological transition”, which was published in New Europe website at the end of September, was in many ways remarkable. It linked the economic crisis with the environmental crisis, criticised the economic policy of the European Union, especially in dealing with the Greek crisis, but perhaps most important was that for the first time it described with crystal clarity the roll-back of the European Union in an area that until now it helped pioneer, that of environmental protection.

According to the authors: “Since the first bailout package for Greece was approved in May 2010 by the EU/IMF/ECB lending trio, the crisis has spread across large parts of the EU. Although the root causes and the impacts of the economic crisis differ among countries, the prescription is uniform: austerity and budget cuts, environmental deregulation, shrinking of environmental public administration, pressures on wages and living standards. More surprising, however, is the reluctance of the European Commission to uphold its own environmental laws. Why were the structural adjustment programmes imposed on heavily indebted countries not reviewed under the EU’s very own strategic environmental impact assessment legislation? Their real impacts on Europe’s natural capital still elude the Commission’s economic radars”

This is an unsettling statement, which notes a historical shift in EU policy. It implies that environmental policy is not developed according to some well-established political and environmental values (or even with the European rule of law itself), but is directly dependent on the established policies of economic development and environment of course comes second. The fact that these environmental values are in conflict with the well-known, dirty and centralised development that became prevalent during the post-war period, and despite the realisation of its limits and its failure was selected again to exit the crisis it itself created, does not seem to be an issue that concerns the European Commission under its present composition!

The impact of the financial crisis

“In the dismal reality of the deepening financial crisis in the European Union, exploiting the natural environment is seen by troubled member states as a quick-fix solution for rapid economic recovery. Following decades of massive spending on an unsustainable economic and development model, the EU’s policy response is essentially a recipe for a much deeper and longer term environmental crisis”. In other words, what the authors describe is not a single failure of a couple Member States that have been in the throes of economic crisis, under the pressure of panic, but a conscious pressing by the European Commission itself for more brutal exploitation of the natural environment as a response to exit from the crisis! It’s about a conscious and brutal attempt to demolish the environmental acquis of EU. This may refer at present to the countries mostly hit by the crisis, but as long as the prescriptions of austerity and brutal environmental exploitation will be generalised under the  current German government’s guidance, the more noticeable would become their irreversible character to the rest of the European countries and the whole European structure – or what is left of it.

For Greece, however, the price is quite heavy. “In Greece, the policy domains that have been most heavily impacted relate to environmental impact assessment (EIA) and environmental approval of construction and development projects, as well as forest and coastal protection. Budget cuts and political indifference have caused the collapse of the national system of protected areas. Regulatory uncertainty and constant changes in pricing policies have brought the renewable energy industry to near extinction. Emphasis now is on “dirty” projects, such as hydrocarbon exploration, widely advertised as Greece’s black gold future, coal development and gold mining. Recently, the Environment Ministry released a draft law which declassifies vast areas covered with Mediterranean woodlands, opening the way for controversial and highly damaging development on ecologically valuable lands”.

What choice for the future?

Is there an alternative direction for Greece and Europe or do we live in the authoritarianism of the lack of choice, of Thatcher’s TINA (There Is No Alternative), in which the social democratic parties have succumbed? Finding a suitable alternative, ultimately, I believe that will be the challenge of our generation. There is currently no fully elaborated counter-proposal. The European Left is still lost between past mistakes and new policies with which it has not familiarised itself yet. The Red-Green government of Iceland that tried to lead the country out of the crisis, implemented interesting recipes, though they were declined by the Icelandic electorate. In any case, it is my deep conviction that there can be no perspective without the environmental dimension.

WWF’s article outlines some economic guidelines that respect the Greek environment. The focus is on primary production, tourism, energy and processing/industry, all in green directions, while respecting environmental objectives and indicators and addressing key social deficits. Such as unclear and complex laws and rules, legal uncertainty, social inequality, lack of public participation in policy making, environmental crime, lack of basic environmental knowledge and planning tools, administrative ineffectiveness, non-transparency in the public and the private sector, shortage in vision and new ideas. But these should be implemented by a common European framework and not in an environment of different national laws on taxation, tax evasion, immigration, wages and social benefits, and also huge differences in economic competitiveness, where the surplus countries can press further deficit countries through their sizeable debt.

The Greens are essential

At the moment there are no other political forces in Europe that are willing to support with sufficient clarity an ecological transition, beyond the Green parties. Their contribution in shaping government programs with clear such programmatic direction has an element of uniqueness. However, the Greens also have another element that distinguishes them. And it is none other than their belief that Europe and its institutions can not be left any more to decline, because on the corner is a lurking right-wing nationalist authoritarianism. Instead, we have to try again with renewed interest for Europe to achieve the democratic character and institutions that deserve to European citizens, to the visions and the sacrifices made in Europe’s name

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