“Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address two weeks ago when he declared: For me, Europe is more than just a single market. More than money, more than the euro. It was always about values”, was the rallying cry for which many integrationists longed.
Ambitious calls for a deeper and wider union, including proposing a common finance minister, as well as strong stances on further enlargement, a defence union and immigration, come at a time of unprecedented uncertainty.
Certainly, the perceived democratic deficit and distance from Brussels that the majority of UK voters feel has caused Mr. Juncker to reconsider the Union’s modus operandi.
He is facing a battle for hearts and minds, to shore up Euroscepticism, and foster more positive sentiment from citizens to the EU; thus, his vision for the future of Europe, outlined in his speech, is paramount to this goal.
Unfortunately for him, there seems to be very little to unite Europeans today. Some of these divides run deep: witness the public vitriol exchanged between pro- and anti-Brexiteers, between those who support and oppose Viktor Orban in Hungary, between those with differing attitudes towards immigration in Germany.
One issue that an overwhelming number of Europeans support, however, is the environment. In fact, there aren’t many more issues that are as widely supported. Figures from the latest Eurobarometer survey relating to the issue, in 2014, reveal that 95 per cent of Europeans regard the protection of the environment as “Fairly important” or “Very important”, while 77 per cent agree that environmental problems have a “direct effect on their daily lives”.
This is consistent with developments in European civil society; The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch NGO aiming to remove plastic from the seas, raised $2.2 million in 2014, entirely from crowd funding (although part-funded by non-Europeans too).
95 per cent of Europeans regard the protection of the environment as “Fairly important” or “Very important”
Couple this popular support with the EU’s clout in the area, and Juncker seems perfectly mandated to act. Of course, most individuals would rank environmental protection as a low priority compared to issues of financial security, healthcare and crime. Nevertheless, it presents an opportunity to show how Brussels can address accusations of democratic defiance, and of being a faraway technocratic set of institutions ‘interfering’ in the lives of ordinary citizens.
The problem of collective action, in the context of an anarchic international order, means that there is no ‘world government’ to solve problems that require transnational cooperation. The EU fills this vacuum.
This serves as a rebuke to those in favour of getting rid of the EU. Among these collective problems would be terrorism, immigration and the depletion of resources. Despite its other political, economic and legal mandates, its power to affect environmental change makes it important and relevant to the wishes of European citizens, where national governments are generally a lot less effective and more prone to the pressures of other domestic issues.
One important initiative spearheaded under the Juncker Commission is that of encouraging the implementation of a circular economy. Although businesses and other economic actors will be the driving force of this, the EU has a vital role in ensuring that “the right regulatory framework is in place for the development of the circular economy in the single market”, as specified in its Action Plan for the Circular Economy.
In essence, the circular economy ‘closes the loop’ of waste, whereby as much material as possible re-enters the economy through re-use, recycling, remanufacturing and repairing, and importantly, by ensuring that materials used in production initially are safe and capable of being recycled.
This is in contrast to a linear economy, where all materials end up as waste. However, there will always be an element of waste even in a circular economy. Apart from being idealistic, the economic benefits that go hand-in-hand with environmental ones are emphasised in this Action Plan, seemingly in a nod to the businesses and civil institutions whose cooperation will be necessary to bring this about.
Obstacle or opportunity?
This tactic of using an issue in which the EU has a clear mandate, the environment, to address another that is divisive, the economy, may prove to be an effective blueprint for EU policy-makers in favour of further integration, especially as the two issues seem to conflict regularly, as in TTIP negotiations.
This is just one environmental policy in a long line for the European Union; it is, however, becoming all the more relevant as the issue of climate change grows in prominence worldwide. The question remains as to whether Brussels can make the environment relevant, and whether environmental policy is seen as an obstacle or an opportunity to improving its image and gaining popular support.
As with all good circular economies, this article will end on the same note it it began: Juncker’s State of the Union remarks.
Concerning indications about the future of environmental policy, Juncker leaves his flock with a hopeful message:
Set against the collapse of ambition in the United States, Europe will ensure we make our planet great again. It is the shared heritage of all of humanity.
Ambitious. And exactly what is needed. We will have to wait and see whether policy matches rhetoric.