Friday

22nd Feb 2019

Opinion

Juncker's environment omissions betray true priorities

  • Climate and environment don't seem to be truly on Jean-Claude Juncker's mind. (Photo: European commission)

The State of the Union speech given by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker earlier this week has received mixed reactions.

In the immediate aftermath, most praised his call for action to help the refugees arriving in Europe and his linking of climate change and the refugee crisis was welcomed in environmental circles.

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However, as the week goes on, what Juncker actually said is becoming increasingly blurred as commentators mix the version of the speech he delivered with the text that appears on the Commission's website.

The two are widely different and the omissions and additions make for interesting reading, in particular as regards the environment and sustainable development.

Since coming to power, President Juncker has made it clear that the environment is not at the forefront of his mind.

His 10 priorities push a traditional business-as-usual economic growth agenda and the only significant mention of the environment is via climate change and energy.

The need for greater resource efficiency and measures to protect biodiversity, ecosystems and environmental health are conspicuous by their absence.

Furthermore, in the year in which a new global agreement on Sustainable Development Goals will be adopted, only after insistence from the European Parliament supported by NGOs, did Juncker agree to tag "sustainable development" onto the job description of Vice President Timmermans.

On Wednesday, the European Environmental Bureau (EBB) tuned in to listen to the State of the Union speech. We were struck by the length of the speech, its lack of coherence and Juncker's inability to rise above the heckling from Eurosceptic MEPs.

However, we were happy to see him join the dots between the refugee crisis and the effects of climate change, and given his previous track record, we were not unduly surprised when he did not go the extra mile and link the impact of Europe's lifestyle on the rest of the world.

We were therefore shocked to read the text of the speech online and find that the president had made a number of Freudian slips around sustainability and the environment that worryingly seem to reveal the true state of his thinking.

True feelings?

There were in fact two different speeches. In the online version, it reads: "This is not the time to count how many times the word social, economic or sustainable appears in the State of the Union speech."

However, once in the mouth of Mr Juncker, this became: "Don't count up how many times I use the word social, just take it that my heart is full of the social, and don't count how many times I use the word economic or monetary or budget."

Interesting that the word "sustainable" never made it into Mr Juncker's speech, while the word "economic" was repeated in three different forms.

Likewise, in the online version, the text presciently states that: "The planet we share – its atmosphere and stable climate – cannot cope with the use mankind is making of it.

Some parts of the world have been living beyond their means, creating carbon debt and living on it. As we know from economics and crisis management, living beyond our means is not sustainable behaviour."

"Nature will foot us the bill soon enough. In some parts of the world, climate change is changing the sources of conflict – the control over a dam or a lake can be more strategic than an oil refinery.”

This is strong rhetoric, and we would have been delighted to hear these words spoken out loud by a European Commission president in the European Parliament.

Alas, it was not to be.

Mr Juncker spent too long jockeying about and ran out of time. As he said, he needed to wrap up and stick to the most "salient points" of his speech.

"Nature", the world's life support system, was apparently not salient enough for him.

Mr Juncker, your rhetoric on climate change sounded good, but as long as you stick blindly to your 10 points and ignore the reality that strong environmental policies are vital for a healthy economy, the environment and the people who depend on it will suffer.

Jeremy Wates is Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB)

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