EU to get tough over environmental issues in funded projects


THE European Commission will intervene "more and more" in bases where its funds are being invested in projects which are in conflict with environmental policies, its Environment Commissioner, Ms Ritt Bjerregaard, said yesterday.

In an interview with The Irish Times, she made it clear that she supported the decision of her colleague, Ms Monica Wulf Mathies, the regional policy commissioner, to withhold EU funding for the controversial Mutton Island sewage treatment plant in Galway Bay.

Though Ms Bjerregaard was not "directly involved in dealing with Mutton Island, she said it was absolutely clear" that where the Commission was providing 85 per cent of the funds for any scheme, environmental factors "will play a much bigger role."

The Commission was investigating whether the £25 million project violated EU environmental legislation, she said. The Save Galway Bay Group, which has been campaigning against the scheme, believes that it contravenes the EU Habitats Directive.

If the Government insisted on going ahead, "they'll have to pay for it themselves", she declared. Asked if, in general, EU money was being spent wisely in Ireland, all she would say was: "I hope so."

Asked if she believed it would become commonplace for the Commission to intervene in cases where its money was at stake, Ms Bjerregaard said: "Yes, if they are not fulfilling environmental goals. Indeed, I believe you'll see more and more of those cases."

Today Ms Bjerregaard will meet the Minister for the Environment, Mr Howlin, who decided to go ahead with Mutton Island despite the Commission's objections. But their talks will be confined to the agenda for Ireland's EU Presidency, starting on July 1st.

The Commissioner described Mr Howlin as "a very dedicated person" and said she looked forward to working closely with him. Yesterday she met the President, Mrs Robinson, and on Saturday she visited Dublin's Temple Bar area, which received £17 million in EU aid.

She also called in to ENFO, the environmental information service, saying she found it "extremely useful", and went to Co Wicklow to hear about environmental problems in upland areas, such as mechanised peat extraction from blanket bog and sheep over grazing.

Ms Bjerregaard agreed that EU headage payments for sheep were "not sensitive" to the environment. "The problem is that every time you make a scheme, you run the risk that it will be used in a way you didn't think about, and every so often you have to pay to go the other way.

Asked about Sellafield, she said: "We cannot do much. All we can do is use the Euratom treaty to look at the health and safety of the population. But the decision to have it [the nuclear reprocessing plant] is a decision of the member state," in this case Britain.

While she was "not personally very much in favour" of nuclear power, the Commissioner, who has responsibility for nuclear safety, said there was "no proof" that Sellafield was damaging people's health in Ireland.

Ms Bjerregaard said she believed the nuclear industry was"absolutely right" in saying that it contributed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The biggest problem was what to do with its radioactive waste.

She said carbon dioxide, the main "greenhouse gas" implicated in climate change, could be reduced by switching from coal to natural gas. But on the issue of having an EU carbon tax, she admitted that little progress had been made because of the need for unanimity.

"It only needs one country to oppose it and, as we all know, the British are the principals, even though they are one of the countries doing best on CO2. I think that's a pity, because taxes are very useful because they are a non bureaucratic way of achieving environmental policy objectives."

Because of this stand off, she said, the Commission was trying to encourage member states to follow the example of Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands by introducing their own carbon tax. "If we are to achieve our CO2 targets, individual countries will have to do something about it."

The Commissioner agreed wit a recent assessment by the European Environmental Agency that accelerated policies were needed to achieve the goal of sustainability. "I think the agency is very good at mentioning what we did not achieve, and what we cave to work for."

She also agreed that "sustainable development" has been used by politicians as "an easy to say phrase" but not much was actually being done about it. "Maybe this is because we have failed to make jet concrete and left it as a label for everything good we would like to achieve.

In particular, there were problems with transport, with chemicals and with the growing mountain of waste. "We're working on new waste strategy, but it takes time. I'm also concerned about the issue of traffic and its impact on cities and towns, where most people now live."

She denied reports that the Commission President, Mr Jacques Santer, was giving the environment a lower priority than his predecessor, Mr Jacques Delors. "I don't think that's true. I would say that Santer is interested and knows that the environment matters," she said.

"What's very characteristic of this Commission is that we're almost all old politicians. And if you are a politician, you know what's high on the agenda and you're going to play up to that." She has been in politics for 23 years and is well accustomed to its "ups and downs".

It was a "myth" that interest in the environment was declining, after reaching a high point at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. "If you chat to ordinary people, it's absolutely clear that it's moving higher on the agenda. I think it's stronger than ever before.

"But we've also reached the tougher points, because we have dealt with the easier things. Now when we have to deal with the integration [of the environment into all areas of policy] it begins to be harder," for example, in tackling the growing impact of traffic on climate change.

The Commissioner, formerly a government minister in Denmark, disagreed that there was any conflict between economic and environmental policy objectives. "I don't think that meeting environmental demands means less economic growth," she said.

"We've been trying to come up with some figures showing that environmental demands mean that you're creating jobs. Because if you say we want cleaner water, you need to have sewage treatment. If you say we need to have cleaner air, you need to go into anew technologies.

"The so called eco industries are one of the growing sectors. I think their growth has been 8 per cent per year. And in this area, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, those countries which have high environmental standards, are doing better than others.

"If you look at central and eastern Europe, where there's a need for a clean up, it's absolutely clear that this is a growing market. I think we can turn around the argument that the environment means you're losing jobs. Yes, you are losing some jobs, but you're gaining others."