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The European Parliament's Environment Committee: Powerhouse or pawn?

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Is this body a powerful and effective voice of public conscience or mere lobby fodder, caught in the endless cycle of legislation which is not fit to be implemented?

Have you ever wondered about the chemicals they put in your favourite snacks, ever lost sleep over where the rubbish goes when the binmen take it away or the processes which bring meat to your table: the journey from 'farm to fork'. If you are not the type to dwell on these things - and even if you are - the good news is that somewhere, people have made it their business to do that worrying for you. To be precise they are the 60 members of the European Parliament's Environment Committee.

The Committee for the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, to give it its full title, has been called the European Parliament's "powerhouse" by at least one publication . It is a body presiding over a vast corpus of legislation and with co-decision powers - which means that its members have real input into draft legislation over two readings and therefore a chance to bargain with Council on the key points throughout the process. However, it is arguably not co-decision alone which lies at the root of the Committee's influence in European politics, but the fact that it deals with a legislative field which is relatively new and previously unprovided for at Member State level. Environmental policy, with its inherent transnational implications and concerns is neither a borrowed or (some might say) 'stolen' national competence but belongs to the European domain.

At the heart of 'European' legislation

In abstract terms, the work of the Environment Committee becomes increasingly important in an age where our security, both individual and collective, is no longer defined by national governments and no longer limited to the borders of the nation state. Amid our increasing interdependence, as the question of security becomes transnational, so does the need to manage and define 'risk' - one of the primary concerns of Environmental legislation. In this sense the Environment Committee at the European Parliament is in its element, with a role to play in monitoring and regulating risk.

The life of the Committee is never dull. Given the scope of the legislation, members of the parliament's secretariat may be in charge of a number of dossiers at any one time, whilst the political group's secretariat (whose job is to advise and co-ordinate the position of the particular groups) are in a position to make or break legislation through the many compromises struck between political groups, as well as the various national delegations. Assistants scurry from one dossier to the next, weighted down with legislative documents: in an average committee week you can be discussing the fate of tobacco advertising and health claims one day and evaluating prescription medicines or voting on the safety of household substances or GMOs the next. The brief is huge.

The 'humble' parliamentarian as the citizen's champion?

An elected representative on the Environment Committee has the opportunity to fight causes which are often relevant to the popular imagination, beloved of the people, if not of member states governments and industry. On issues ranging from SARS to GMOs, to testing cosmetics on animals, the Environment Committee has a legitimate right to have its voice heard and it is, more often than not, a voice which rings in tune with civic groups, activists and NGOs than big business. In a role reversal, the humble parliamentarian can become king as civil servants and ministers pay court to members who have authored the latest report - crawling the corridors and knocking on doors in an attempt to swing a vote. In committee many a hapless Commission official has wilted under the fierce attacks of the current Committee Chair, a proverbial Daniel thrown into the den to the mercy of the lions.

Most significant of the powers of individual members of the Environment Committee comes to light on those occasions where, after the Parliament has had its second reading and Council has reconsidered its position, agreement still has not been reached. Here the parliamentarian can sit round the same table as government officials to thrash out compromises and bargain for points in a process known as conciliation. At a recent such meeting Environment Committee members debated into the early hours on behalf of Parliament to win a dual marketing and test ban on cosmetics with ingredients tested on animals within 10 years. Such victories represent a redress of insititutional imbalance, but as Parliament in the shape of individual MEPs pushes for greater powers there is a sense in which the interinstitutional power struggle and the feverish idealism of Members at times represents a potent, intoxicating and unhealthy combination.

Ambition and idealism, please read the label, this may be bad for your health!

The work of the Environment Committee can be see as embodying some of the very contradictions of the European project, as a project that is part and parcel of the process of globalisation. At times the aims of environmental of purists (that of necessarily protecting environmental and geographical diversity) are lost amid the drive for standards and standardisation. It is not an exaggeration to say that in the process of creating a level playing field across Europe, legislation can resemble a bulldozer, knocking down all signs of diversity and growth in its path. Health and consumer protection standards may be raised, but at a price: Environment Committee members adopted legislation raising authorisation and safety-evaluation costs for pesticides. With what aim? The number of pesticides on the market will be reduced but the products left will be dominated by big-hitters, the multinationals, whilst smaller more benevolent products are driven from the market. Here the message is clear: "bad for biodiversity, good for big business".

The Environment Committee walks a tightrope between serving consumers interests and meeting the needs of the European Union's internal market. It is a difficult job at the best of times, dealing with quite technical legislation, and yet abstracted from the site of the action, the grassroots. Sometimes in the pursuit of an ideal the reality becomes rather messy: the observer is left with the impression that the politicians are clutching at figures, playing with round numbers that sound attractive but are unrealistic, if not technically (as well as theoretically) impossible to implement, such as "0% GMOs...0% heavy metals" . The problem is not necessarily that the politics is too 'green' but rather that somewhere we lose sight of the wider interests and long-term needs of our community in the thirst for achieving a symbolic goal or gaining a quick political victory. Lobbyists are more often than not implicit in this process, circling hungrily and ready to leap vulture-like on to a corpus which, through sheer size of workload has not time to consider the issues in a context beyond the Brussels public affairs scene. Adopted draft legislation which looks nothing like what the Commission originally proposed as contradictory amendments are passed, destroying the carefully arranged schema, whilst the Council looks on with paternalistic disapproval as if dealing with teenagers who are courting idealism and defiance.

Due to the size of its area of competence, and the importance of this area in impacting national legislation and everyday lives the Environment Committee is well-placed to become a victim of its own powers. As a body it is not a free agent, but rather its work must balance a variety of interests - its members aware that they cannot please all of the people all of the time. On high-profile issues, the Committee's powers leave it a vulnerable target for backstabbing, both by member state governments (who colluded in the legislation anyway but hide behind Brussels) or news hungry media. It is noteworthy that some of the most famous euro-myths currently circulating in the British media (from 'straight bananas' to the death of 'fish and chips') concern policy which has some point passed through the Environment Committee.

A future of legislation or implementation?

The Environment committee has tough battles ahead, not least enlargement and the monitoring of third country imports of goods which are not subject to the same standards. Perhaps the greatest of all these challenges will be facing up to the fact that environmental legislation is poorly implemented by member states if at all. As obedient member states cry "foul" whilst others transgress, attention is turning to how we can enforce or sanction states for not implementing legislation - particularly those future member states who had no hand in the ambitious legislation to which they will be subject upon entering the Union. Here the Environment Committee could have a role to play in recognising the need for a two-way dialogue monitoring the impact of legislation. This means greater jurisprudence, and a reconnecting with the people who matter - the implementers in member states who know better than anyone (better than Brussels lobbyists and government officials) the practicalities of what works and what does not. Most of all the current feeling in the Environment Committee reflects the general need to take stock and look at the quality rather than the quantity of environmental legislation that passes through its does. There is enough history now in the field of environmental legislation for us to look back and survey the field - and stop littering it with legislation which goes ignored and end up on the scrapheap.

1 - Article in the 'Parliament Magazine' October 2002.

2 - Biblical ref: Daniel was a high level administrator of public affairs under King Darius in Persia who showed loyalty to god above his king but also loyalty to his king.

3 - Ubiquitously present in the atmosphere, but also present in wood.