Anything but eco-talk
The environment is still not as important as it should be in global politics, says SHIV AROOR, in a commentary on the E.U. Environment Commission Conference held in Brussels recently.
A call for sustainable development ... The pre-Earth summit conference in Rennes, France
THE European Union Environment Commission Conference in Brussels in April was ostensibly to provide direction towards the Earth Summit later this year in Johannesburg. That "Jo'burg" even needs any impetus is a tragedy, but who can blame a group of people who made more than a mockery out of the expensive and wasteful conference in Rio 10 years ago. But to have another expensive, and hopefully, not wasteful, conference in Brussels is a huge "credibility dagger" hanging over the head of the E.U..
Commissioner Wallström, well known as a hard-liner, with transparent policies says the conference provides concrete targets, something the Rio summit failed to. Funny then that the day after an interview, where the Commissioner told me that the World Bank planned to integrate environmental sustainability into its global funding policy, the Guardian reported document leaks revealing the E.U.'s real trade policies in the East. Opening markets in the Third World for its ailing services sector, while industries in the East beg for the E.U. to stop dragging its feet about opening itself up.
Answers from politicians in press conferences were surprisingly ludicrous especially for a Commission that prides itself on its transparent directness. A press conference with Pascal Lamy, most senior Trade official in the E.U. revealed even less. Reacting to allegations that the European Services Federation was allowed to maintain an agenda within the Trade Commission (which would be illegal, if true), Lamy said "**** ****" and refused to say more. When a Reuters journalist asked about why the E.U. was not opening its markets to the Third World, Lamy actually managed to turn the whole discussion around to seem like the E.U. was a vanguard of self-liberalisation.
From the huge media present to cover the conference, very few journalists actually had the heart (or the mind) to bring up anything concrete. Questions were general. One reporter from Denmark asked how the DG Environment was doing to make "Jo'burg" different from Rio, instantly giving Wallström and Lamy the most fascinating and tiresome propaganda opportunity. Of course, the reporter could have accessed the same drivel on one of the Commission's handouts available not 10 metres away. A lot of wasted questions. It was bad enough that specific good questions were not answered.
Decision-makers need to be comfortable when they attend conferences of this sort, but Green week was a tad extravagant. Expensive wine flowed through the day for anyone who cared to pick up a glass (which was always everybody); gourmet lunches and fancy cocktail parties were organised to entice the press. Jean-Francois Verstrynge, acting DG made the same speech four times in four different rooms, on the same day. This included the press-lunch, the most spectacular propaganda opportunity, when journalists are disarmed and quietly happy with their patê de fois gras. The Reuters journalist caused a bit of a stir when he brought up America's apathy to the E.U. while tucking into his mousse de jambon.
The Gala dinner three days into the conference was an event for about 2,000 people. Sit down gourmet dinner, candles, performers, and enough wine to fill a small pool many times over. And as my friend Patrizia Lugo Loprieno (who runs an NGO called MÈTA1 in Milan and who had a stall at the conference) said at the press conference, Green week should have meant good food, not an extravagant five-day bash. The conference ran on a fairly balanced scheme of things. Talks were never delayed, politicians didn't cancel speeches, and interviews were quite easily available, though the E.U. Commission's President, Romano Prodidis, appeared mysteriously after his tryst with a life-sized squid from Denmark.
The overwhelming majority of people from NGOs from all over Europe were present at the conference, and their sometimes-subdued voices got a chance to be heard. An unassuming and quiet woman from Norway runs a coastal rehabilitation unit that rescues beaches from oil slicks. The WWF was there to push laws against over-fishing, various organisations worked to promote eco-travel (the fantastic Minicab which runs on batteries), and groups, often just two or three people, from the Caspian states working to save the last few hundred specimens of the Snow Vulture or Arctic Fox. The conglomeration of such an active force was heartening and there were many times during meetings and media activities that NGOs got huge publicity for their work.
The inclusion of large business corporations in the conference was a good idea. In the current eco-political world, it seems that real change and reform in trade and the environment can only be realised by large companies.
Their presence at the conference must have seemed distasteful to some NGOs, but their exclusion would have a much more adverse effect. Companies have clout with political policy, and the power finally does rest with them, as hard as it is to admit it. Ultimately, the argument that Green week is necessary for the Earth Summit in August was just not convincing enough. In 1992, before Rio, conferences like Green week were held in Singapore by the SAARC countries, in the Belize and Nigeria. The E.U., like all large working bodies, appears to be bogged down by a huge and intricate bureaucracy where paperwork is preferable to speech, and the signature takes precedence over a word of honour.
The environment is still not as important as it should be in global politics, and that sometimes seemed to show in some of the meetings. Pascal Lamy's hardlining style always went back to trade and commercialisation. He refused to listen when I told him that more trade meant more emissions and further breaches of Kyoto. It was very clear that if Wallström and Lamy were truly dedicated to their positions, they would be mortal enemies.
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