Brussels, 29 Sep 2004
"Environmental protection is precisely the area where non-action can be very costly", said Commissioner-designate for the Environment Stavros DIMAS at his hearing by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety on Wednesday morning. Responding in particular to a request by committee chair Karl-Heinz FLORENZ (EPP-ED, DE) that he should give "substantial reasons why the EU should or should not take action" Mr Dimas dealt with a wide range of questions by members of this committee, which is responsible for a large volume of codecision legislation.
One of the guiding threads of the hearing was the need to reconcile economic factors such as competitiveness with high environmental standards. Mr Dimas stressed that although he was known more as an economist he was happy that "his desire to become the Commissioner for the environment was recognised". Sustainable development should, he emphasised, be kept on an equal footing with economic and social aspects at the mid-term review of the Lisbon process. Moreover, seeing environmental protection only as a threat to competitiveness was a static interpretation of industrial development, which he himself didn't share. On the contrary, well-designed environmental legislation could boost technological development. As proof one need only look at the best companies in the world. Quoting a recent OECD study, Mr Dimas added "implementing new environment policies is either job creating or job neutral".
In his opening speech the Commissioner-designate had promised to keep Europe in the global lead on issues such as tackling climate change and health problems caused by environmental pollution. Turning to his priorities, Mr Dimas elaborated on the chemicals package REACH, climate change and the need to make sure existing environmental legislation is properly implemented in all Member States. He saw the implementation of legislation as a natural extension to all policy areas and was worried that infringement proceedings were on the increase because many Member States were in serious breach of their obligations.
Climate change remains a priority
"I hope this can be heard by the Americans", said Mr Dimas when answering questions by Peter LIESE (EPP-ED, DE) and Dorette CORBEY (PES, NL) on climate change. He reminded MEPs that according to a leading British study, and indeed one by the Pentagon, climate change is a much bigger threat to global security than international terrorism. Mr Liese was particularly worried that Member States were not acting fast enough to implement the emissions-trading directive. Mr Dimas promised to do "everything to persuade them before January 2005". In any case, emissions trading would start in three months' time with the Member States that were ready with their national schemes.
Mr Dimas also promised to keep Europe in the lead on international co-operation on climate change. He pointed out that "the world is facing a carbon-constrained future" that requires immediate national and international action. He was also very hopeful that recent comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin meant Russia would ratify the Kyoto protocol soon.
The Commissioner-designate agreed with Anders WIJKMAN (EPP-ED, SE) that market-driven incentives and measures could be a solution to environmental issues. However, he pointed out that market-driven instruments are usually the ones on which the Council cannot reach agreement. To another question by Carl SCHLYTER (Greens/EFA, SE) on the imposition of an international carbon dioxide tax on air traffic, he hoped "we shall be able to impose a tax even though unanimity is needed on this in the Council".
Chemical reform REACH stays on the road
Several Members asked questions about the new chemicals legislation REACH. "I would take new impact assessments into account but not change the substance", the Mr Dimas told the committee's rapporteur on REACH, Guido SACCONI (PES, IT). Mr Sacconi answered: "Your reply is very significant as it confirms that the Commission will not change its proposal in the light of the impact assessment". Having been somewhat disappointed in the written answers by Mr Dimas on REACH, Mr Sacconi said he was happy to hear that the Commissioner-designate would keep the reform on the road.
Answering a question by Chris DAVIES (ALDE, UK) as to "which environmental problem makes him cry" Mr Dimas pointed to animal testing in the framework of REACH - an answer greeted with applause. He also promised to listen to NGOs, and not just industrial stakeholders, in connection with the REACH reform.
Boguslaw SONIK (EPP-ED, PL) drew the attention of Mr Dimas to what he felt was the special position of the new Member States vis-Ã -vis the overhaul of the chemicals legislation, saying "Poland took ten years to bring its laws into line with Community legislation in this area and now, with the REACH package, we will be forced to do it all over again in three years". He wanted to know whether specific measures, particularly regarding the deadline for the entry-into-force of the new rules, could be envisaged for these countries. Mr Dimas replied that one would have to look at the impact assessment in order to answer this question but, in his view, the beneficial impact of REACH on "health, the environment and competitiveness will be the same in all Member States", both old and new.
Implementation of environmental law - the first priority
Several MEPs were worried that in his written answers to the committee Mr Dimas had not mentioned waste management as one of his priorities. Mr Florenz asked if Mr Dimas was ready to fulfil the call made by the previous Parliament in March this year and ban all landfills by the year 2025. Mr Dimas said this would be his goal even though in many Member States it would be very difficult. He also promised the vice-chair of the committee Hans BLOKLAND (IND/DEM, NL) that during his term he would present Parliament and Council with a revision of the framework directive on waste.
The subject of waste also came up in relation to infringements. The Commissioner-designate told MEPs "in environmental policy, prevention and enforcement go hand in hand" and said he saw implementation of EU environmental law as his very first priority. The second vice-chairman Satu HASSI (Greens/EFA, FI) said that indeed one third of all infringements of EU law related to environmental legislation and demanded that this also be taken into account when organising staff matters in the Commission's DG Environment.
Dimitrios PAPADIMOULIS (GUE/NGL, EL) asked whether Mr Dimas would be able to remain impartial in infringement proceedings against Greece, numbering 73 in total. Mr Dimas gave assurances regarding his impartiality and commitment to his role as member of the Commission. He would be consistent in his decisions towards any Member State breaking EU environmental law, whether his own country - which did not in fact hold the record with the number of 73 infringements - or any other.
Agriculture and the environment
The relationship between agriculture and the environment was raised in connection with the Natura 2000 Programme. According to Boguslaw SONIK (EPP-ED, PL), the CAP is responsible for the almost complete disappearance of pasture land in some countries, particularly Germany, where Natura 2000 funding is helping to protect the areas that remain. With enlargement, special provisions and additional funding will be needed to ensure the same situation does not occur in the new Member States. In his view, action should be taken upstream. Mr Dimas, however, did not share these concerns, saying that the allocation of funding would be carried out on a country-by-country basis in such a way that special situations could be taken into account. By contrast, he felt the introduction of special provisions for all the new Member States would be problematic. Further solutions needed to be found to this type of question in the reform of the CAP (for example in de-coupling) and in the LIFE programme. Marie Anne ISLER-BÃ‰GUIN (Greens/EFA, FR) protested about the "funding of Natura 2000 through the Rural Development Fund", saying that this could "once again benefit agriculture to the detriment of the environment". "I hope that will not happen", answered Mr Dimas.
GMOs and health
Several questions were asked about GMOs. "Are you for or against GMOs and do you expect to take specific measures to protect us from GMOs?", asked Friedrich-Wilhelm GRAEFE zu BARINGDORF (Greens/EFA, DE). Mrs ISLER-BÃ‰GUIN suggested that "allowing GMOs is not compatible with protecting bio-diversity". Mr Dimas gave carefully balanced answers. He said it was important always to take account of two factors: the authorised threshold and the area within which organic crops and GMOs grew in proximity. "It is different in a small country like Greece compared to big countries like Argentina or the USA where the risk of proximity of the two types of crop is limited because of the size of the countries" said Mr Dimas. Regarding bio-diversity indicators and the 2010 target for these, he said he hoped to include bio-diversity on the list of environmental indicators included in the Lisbon Strategy. As for the harmfulness of GMOs, Mr Dimas said he was baffled by this and alluded to scientific studies which showed they were harmless.
Nuclear or renewable energy?
Jerzy BUZEK (EPP-ED, PL) wished to know what steps the Commissioner-designate planned to take to deal with the conflict between growing energy needs and the resulting environmental pollution. He described the situation: gas and oil supplies had their limits, nuclear energy entailed major risks, technological solutions to allow the use of renewable forms of energy were not up to the task and coal was more plentiful in the ten new countries than in the Fifteen. The solution, said Mr Dimas, was to increase the production of renewable energy and adopt a more economical approach to consumption. "Just to be clear, are you for or against atomic energy?", demanded Chris DAVIES (ELDR, UK). "If I were the Prime Minister of Greece, I would say No to this type of energy" was Mr Dimas' reply.
Winning the trust of the public
FrÃ©dÃ©rique RIES (ALDE, BE) emphasised that protection of the environment and health were among the main concerns of the public, the same public which she said was becoming increasingly eurosceptic. She asked, referring to the candidate Commissioner's written answers, "What are you going to do to bridge the gap with the public, what practical measures, above and beyond the waffle in the questionnaire, do you expect to propose?". Mr Dimas acknowledged that the turnout figures for the last European elections indicated that public support for the EU was declining. However, he felt unable to propose solutions to this situation, while nevertheless expressing confidence in Mrs WallstrÃ¶m, who will be responsible for communication in the new Commission.
29.9.2004 Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food SafetyChair: Karl-Heinz FLORENZ (EPP-ED, DE)Press enquiries:Leena Maria Linnus - tel. +32 2 284 2825 email: email@example.comCezary Lewanowicz - tel +32 2 2844659; email: firstname.lastname@example.orgNikos Salliarelis - tel +32 2 28 46670; email: email@example.com