The twenty-seven countries which make up the European Union have much which unites them, economically, politically, and socially. However, among them, these Member States also have different cultures, histories, climates, and, officially, twenty-three different languages. All this amounts to numerous national, regional, and local identities which have to be considered when any decision is made at EU level.
These differences were highlighted at a conference hosted by the Greens/European Free Alliance (EFA) in May this year. A panel made up of Green politicians from Sweden, Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic and chaired by MEP Bas Eickhout discussed the challenges and successes they encounter when trying to combine environmental concerns with politics. The debate showed the huge differences in green innovation and attitudes to energy use and the environment across the EU: some areas, such as Oberösterreich (Upper Austria) are leading the way in green technologies, while people in countries like the Czech Republic still need convincing of the benefits of a greener economy.
This discussion highlighted two issues: firstly, that EU regulation is needed to reduce climate change and promote sustainability, but that any intervention must work alongside national and regional politics. Without this, they will not work. Secondly, and more worryingly, that the divide between what is politically possible, and what is scientifically necessary is widening.
Politics and the Environment
At EU level, green politics have much support. The Greens EFA in the European Parliament were the only group to increase in size in the 2009 elections when they introduced their Green New Deal (GND) – a proposed solution to the environmental, social and political problems facing Europe. Indeed the European Parliament is generally the most progressive of the three main EU institutions in terms of environmental issues. At national level, however, the situation is not always so rosy.
There are very good examples of successful green policies at regional level. Rudolf Anschober, the State Councillor on Environment in Oberösterreich, explained how the area has successfully combined ambitious targets with green innovation to put their version of the GND into action. So far, the region has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe at 4.4 per cent; has created 41, 000 jobs in the past eight years; and are currently recycling around 80 per cent of the materials they use. This has been achieved even though the Greens do not have complete control in the region.
In the Czech Republic we see a very different situation. For example, Ondřej Liška, Chairman of Strana Zelených (the Czech Greens), claimed that 80 per cent of Czech citizens believe nuclear power is the future – this is compared to 85-90 per cent of people in Oberösterreich in favour of quickly pressing ahead with an energy revolution.
What makes the difference between these Green Parties across Europe so vast? The answer appears to lie in the relationship between politics, business, and society. Where this relationship revolves around shared goals and values, as in Oberösterreich, and there are proven results which benefit all then substantial systemic green changes can be made. Without this relationship, little can be done.
We need more EU regulation of green issues. Countries like the Czech Republic need support and guidance to become more sustainable. This is clear. What the conference highlighted was that EU regulation needs to be flexible and workable at national and regional level. Different areas have different needs and these are ignored at the EU’s peril. For example, in Sweden where one third of workers are employed in the industry sector, job security and re-training must be a focus for big business and politicians in order to gain public support. Universal targets or guidelines will clearly not work the same for green-advanced areas like Oberösterreich and more reluctant Eastern European Member States.
In many areas of the EU the relationship between politics, industry, and society is developing very slowly, if at all; while those Member States struggling to implement green measures are receiving little support from the EU. This is a concern: the environment will not wait for politics to catch up and the changes needed to address the expanding problems will only worsen. We need to act now or face greater problems in the future.