Dimas saves face as latest European skirmish is won

There was a time when battles to protect the environment were fought on the site of the latest bypass or in swathes of forest set to feel the logger's axe.

But now the real victories take place in the corridors of power, and on Wednesday, Stavros Dimas could wipe away the egg left on his face from the political embarrassment of EC President Jose Manuel Barroso’s earlier decision to shelve the seven strategies likely to define the Environment Commissioner’s career in Brussels.

At the beginning of July Barroso dramatically pulled the plug on the Thematic Strategy for Air Pollution, shelving it and its sister strategies with no immediate plans to reintroduce them to the EC’s agenda (see related story).

Barroso and powerful Commissioners tied to the economic development of the union had pointed to financial concerns, arguing the strategy would mean more red tape and cost industry €12 billion to introduce.

Raising fears over its likely impact on Europe’s competitiveness they also hinted that – with the current wave of environmental cases against member states – there was little point in bringing in tough new standards if nations were going to ignore them.

Dimas and his pro-environment allies had argued that it would cost considerably more in the long-term not to implement the strategy and highlighted the fact the regulations could prevent some 350,000 premature deaths from air pollution.

This week the President held a debate on the future of all seven strategies which, as well as air quality, focus on the marine environment, waste prevention and recycling, sustainable use of resources, soil protection, pesticides and the urban environment.

There has been extensive consultation on each of the strategies and they have been years in the preparation.

But on Wednesday the College of Commissioners agreed to put them back on the agenda and aim to present them to the European Parliament between September and December this year.

Environmental campaigners have welcomed the change of heart in Brussels but have sounded a note of caution.

John Hontelez, secretary general of lobby group The European Environmental Bureau said: “We are glad that a large majority of the Commissioners have supported Environment Commissioner Dimas in his plea to see environmental policies both as necessary for Europe and positive for economic development.

“In the last few weeks, we got increasingly concerned that this Commission would alienate the European citizens further from the EU Institutions by
dumping the environmental agenda.

“In the end, also thanks to the interventions of civil society organisations and a range of governments, wisdom has prevailed, for now at least.”

But like many, Hontelez suspected Dimas had simply won a battle, not the war.

“While we welcome the decision to move on with these strategies, we have serious concerns about the expected content of several of them,” he said.

“We know the ambition level is not high in many cases, and the current pressure to not come with any proposal that business considers to be bad for competitiveness is not helping.

“In particular we are deeply worried about the Waste Strategy, which might weaken existing EU laws and policies rather than move us forward.”

By Sam Bond

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