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Environment and EU

by Jonas Sjöstedt

The environment is often used as an argument for membership in the European Union. Though it is true that the solutions to most environmental problems lie in international co-operation it does not automatically follow that EU membership leads to a better environmental policy.

The European Unions influence on and contribution to environmental policy has many faces. There is the progressive face that includes the adoption of laws that are enforceable in all fifteen member states and that protect the environment by regulating for example the emissions of harmful substances into the air and the water. This legislation is in the form of directives that require a minimum level of environmental protection that the member states may not go below. These environmental demands have meant an improvement of nature protection in many of the European Unions' member states, especially in Southern Europe. These directives in practice often entail a harmonisation of legislation in the areas where they apply. But even though these directives are binding for the member states and are supranational the EU has many difficulties when it comes to enforcement and implementation. A large part of the European Commission's complaints and of the cases brought before the European Court of Justice concern the failure of member states to implement the European environmental legislation.

The trade with and the production of goods are at the root of most environmental problems for example cars, chemicals, food additives etc. The free movement of goods has priority over environmental concerns within the European Union. A member state may not introduce stricter demands on goods for environmental reasons as this is considered to be an obstacle to free trade, which the union does not accept. In this way member states are actively hindered from effectively protecting nature and promoting a sustainable development. Since Sweden became a member state in 1995 the inner market and free trade have in several cases been used as instruments to force us to adopt less progressive regulations. Not only does this view lead to lower environmental standards within the European Union it also means we cannot stop the import of harmful goods. An individual state in the United States of America has more freedom in this area than a member state of the European Union. Switzerland has a unique possibility to be a leader in the environmental area since it is not restricted by the rules of the European Union or of EES treaty. In the European Parliaments standing committee on the environment of which I am a member Switzerland is often referred to as an example. This is a role that would be lost in the event of a Swiss EU membership.

The policy of the European Union in the areas of transport and agriculture create new environmental problems. It is not unusual for projects financed by the structural funds of the European Union to be criticised for harming the environment. In this way membership of the Union means financing environmentally harmful activities. The transport policy of the EU is founded on the principle of freedom of movement and this has meant a substantial increase in the transportation by truck. As an independent state Switzerland can negotiate terms for the heavy amount of traffic going through its territory. But if Switzerland were a member these questions would be decided in Brussels. Large-scale agriculture is the basis for the union's agricultural policy, which has had negative effects on the biological diversity. The European Investment Bank has, besides its lack of transparency, been heavily criticised for having financed projects that have destroyed the environment not only in the union but also in the countries applying for membership.

The European Union more and more often speaks with a single voice in the environmental co-operation at the international level. A single member state cannot present more progressive proposals. Today there is a strong need for industrialised countries that can take the lead in the international environmental co-operation.

In my view there are no environmental reasons for Switzerland to become a member of the European Union. If the country as the courage to combine ambitious environmental policies with progressive demands in the international co-operation Switzerland would do more good for the environment outside than inside the European Union.

Jonas Sjöstedt Co-ordinator for GUE/NGL in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy in the European Parliament >

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