Sunday, January 02, 2005

Myth of the week

The EU is good for the environment

In "feel-good" terms, the "environment" often comes up number one in the approval ratings for EU action, where the majority of those responding believe that, overall, the EU is beneficial to the environment. This reflects in part the assiduous propaganda campaign undertaken by the EU so, in this new "myth", we look at the EU’s actual contribution to improving our environment, but also take a look at how their propaganda machine works.

Produce a pamphlet called "Choices for a greener future", decorate it with a colour photograph of a butterfly against a backdrop of glorious flowers and, by magic, the EU is in the environment business. Go for the EU and get better butterflies!

If ever there was an example of the subtle way the EU harnesses propaganda to the cause, this is it. Everyone is in favour of the "environment" in the same way that no-one could or would speak our against motherhood and apple pie. So, if the EU is in favour of the environment, we should all be in favour of the EU. Such is the underlying message that the EU wishes to convey.

The technique is indeed subtle: "As European citizens, we all share an interest in protecting and improving the environment around us, because it will make our lives better", goes the legend on the very first page of the pamphlet. You have to do a double-take to understand there game they are playing.

First they set up the "European citizen" and then they link this to a worthy and entirely uncontentious common cause – "protecting and improving the environment" – and you are hooked. European citizens are concerned… you are concerned because you are a European citizen… take it any which way you please.

The inference is, of course, that you are concerned because you are a European citizen. There is no allowance for the fact that non-European citizens are just as much concerned, or even that the reader might reject the very notion of European citizenship. The linkage is irrevocable.

Then they go for the H L Mencken "ploy", the American writer who explained that: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

Thus we get: "Over recent decades, it became clear that our global environment is under serious threat as a result of human activities…". The pamphlet then lards the case with reference to the "menace" of climate change and, once the softening up is done, in comes the honey: "The way we in Europe respond to these challenges influences our own happiness and well-being, as well as dictating what sort of world our children live in".

Note the use of the word "we" – inviting a sense of involvement, of solidarity, of common purpose. Again we see the linkage, this time with "happiness and well-being", and the future of our "children". Who but the black-hearted could possible be against such sentiments and such laudable objectives?

From thereon, the rest is easy: "So what can the European Union, in particular, do to protect and nurture the environment?", the pamphlet asks. In the context set, such a question is so logical that it follows as night follows day – the EU will "protect and nurture". How could you answer that the EU can and should do nothing, in response to such a question?

In case you are tempted to answer in the negatives, however, the pamphlet states the case more firmly: "We are entering a new era," it states boldly, "in which countries will have to work together in order to safeguard our environment, for the air we breathe and the waters we drink are not restricted by national frontiers."

Then for the punchline: "As European citizens (again!) we know the sort of world we want to live in and the EU is playing a dynamic role in pursuing that vision with energy and determination".
That is the "case" so far. Firstly, "protecting and improving the environment" is a "good thing". Secondly, as "European citizens" we all share an interest in pursuing the protection and improvement of the environment. Thirdly, countries have to work together to that end and, fourthly, we have a "single vision" of the world we want to live in (doubtless a "European vision") the EU is playing a "dynamic role" in pursuing that vision.

Goebbels would have been proud of the case put, conflating truth and lies in a subtle mix, so carefully stitched together that it is difficult to separate the two. But here goes.

Looking at the issues, in general terms, it is self-evidently true that "protecting and improving the environment" is a "good thing" – but only as a generality. But it begs several questions. But to turn this into practicalities, you have to state what you understand by the "environment?

Then, want do you understand by "protection" and "improvement"? And to what extent then does protection and improvement of the environment take precedence over other human, and in particular, economic activities?

Once you ask these questions, a whole new vista opens up. The "environment", as we know it, is what surrounds us. It is varied, different, and encompasses everything from houses, gardens, roads, factory sites to farmland and virgin wilderness – together with air and water. Who decides what is to be protected and improved, to what standard and at what cost? What is the mix to be and what are the priorities?

This alone destroys the argument for a "common vision" of the environment. In each nation state, we have different problems, different priorities, different needs, different standards, different expectations, and – crucially – different priorities for the expenditure of limited resources. Reconciling the problems, the spending priorities and the standards is a matter for government.

The question is whether a supra-national government should dictate those priorities and here the essential issue is one of government spending. Should the EU be able to decide to elevate, say, a requirement for ultra-purity in drinking water over and above that of the need for hospitals or schools over and above the need to repair leaky water pipes and the renewal of ageing sewers?

As to the "European citizens", therein is the lie. The term is an artificial construct which has no real meaning and only by relying on this artefact is the EU able to project the idea of an otherwise non-existent "common vision". Take it away and we have citizens (and subjects) of the nation state. Their visions (plural) are from a national perspective, and need – by and large – national solutions.

There is, however, validity in the mantra "countries must work together". But the lie creeps in with the inference that the only way they can work together is through the supranational construct of the EU. Yet, one of the most immediate trans-national pollution controversies affecting the EU was acid rain and the supposed effect of British power station emissions on Norwegian forests. Crucially, Norway was not a member of the EU yet mechanisms for dealing with the problem still existed.

Intergovernmental agreements were concluded under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), starting with the 1979 Geneva Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, which Britain ratified in 1982. This convention, which was legally binding, was further extended by no less than eight additional protocols.

In order for countries to work together, therefore, not only is the EU not essential but, inasmuch as "pollution knows no frontiers", the borders of EU member states are in fact too restrictive. Dealing with the wider problem needs larger groupings of countries than merely EU members.

And now for the biggest lie of all – that the EU is playing a "dynamic role" in protecting and improving the environment. Long before the EU was in being, the individual nation states had their own environmental programmes. In the case of the UK, we had strong legislation and programmes stemming from the Public Health Act of 1875, before even some member states of the EU were even nations. In that respect, the EU is simply "hijacking" member state activities and taking the credit for them.

Without the EU, progress on the environment would have continued and indeed so would trans-boundary agreements. One test, therefore, is whether the EU provides "added value", i.e., either improvements over and above those that would have been achieved anyway, in terms of outcome, efficiency and/or cost.

Here, the record of the EU is dire. One of the earlier examples is the "batteries directive" 91/157/EEC, aimed at promoting the recovery and recycling of lead-acid batteries used in motor cars. Prior to that directive, in the UK we had an excellent system which accounted for 95 percent of all batteries disposed of, comprising a profitable business for a number of scrap merchants. The EU scheme, however, imposed a costly, rigid bureaucracy which destroyed the profitability of the collection system, as a result of which costs to end users increased and the percentage of batteries recovered fell to less than 60 percent.

Then we have the famous fridge mountain created by EU regulation 2000/2037 which turned old fridges into "hazardous waste", prohibiting their recycling and turning a perfectly adequate – self-funding - collection and disposal into absolute chaos, ending up with thousands of fridges in huge dumps, costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands to dispose of them.

This is on the back of the infamous "landfill directive", which is causing no end of problems, not least a rash of fly tipping, massively increased costs and a network of expensive incinerators which no one wants at a cost to the UK estimated at £6.9 billion.

So incoherent is the EU waste policy that even the experts have trouble making sense of it, with massive confusion between what is waste disposal and what is recycling. This has led to the absurd situation where it has become virtually impossible to recycle waste oil and where Scottish Power are no longer allowed to use processed sewage to make electricity.

Soon we will have to deal with the End of Life Vehicle directive, the introductory pjase of which is already causing our streets to littered with car wrecks, while the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment Directive will do for personal computers, vacuum cleaners and washing machines exactly what the EU did for fridges.

Yet the propaganda element is still very much alive, as we noted with reaction to the "Reach" directive by the Independent newspaper, which called this bureaucratic monstrosity as "anti-pollution drive". This is the proposed law that will create so many obstacles to the usage of a wide range of chemicals that it will drive businesses abroad, where there are fewer controls of pollution than there are now. The net effect may well be to increase rather than reduce global pollution.

Then there is the Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) which the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds happily chirps "could cost billions of pounds" in achieve the EU targets", which have to be met by 2015. This is on top of the estimated £16 bn needed to upgrade water and sewerage pipes which is already leading to massively increased water bills.

All this, at a very rough estimate, looks like costing the British economy something like £40-50 billion over the next ten years or so, or between £4-5 billion a year – all to create more problems than are solved

But that reckons without the grand-daddy of them all, the Kyoto agreement, which according to the environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg could costs between $150 to $300 billion a year without having any long-term effect on global warming, massively retarding developed economies and limiting their ability to assist developing countries.

That itself has spawned the EU’s ultimate bureaucratic dream, the Emissions Trading Scheme, which adds a further £25 billion a year to the costs of the productive economy.

This is the EU’s idea of a "greener future". For any normal person it is a vision of chaos and disaster. Apart from anything else, the fact that the EU even thinks it is doing good for the environment – and the likes of Margaret Beckett believe is a reason why we should vote for the EU constitution – more than adequately demonstrates how far detached from reality supporters of the "project" really are.

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