It’s one rule of law for the EU, another for everyone else.
Or at least that could be the conclusion of anyone following the controversial happenings at a UN meeting on environmental justice last week.
The less-well-known-than-it-should-be Aarhus Convention is widely considered as a breathtaking achievement of international diplomacy.
The agreement, signed by almost fifty countries, is a set of legal principles that’s still being gently soaked into the sponge of national laws.
Yet the cleaning potential of this powerful tool is likely to be felt for years to come.
By establishing rights for access to environmental information, participation in environmental decision making and access to justice on environmental issues, the Aarhus Convention was a genuine game-changer for environmental justice.
Which is why former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described it as:
“The most ambitious venture in the area of environmental democracy so far undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations.”
Yet it turns out that the EU is failing to deliver in on the promises it made when it signed up.
Citizens, and the NGOs representing them, have only very limited rights to challenge EU actions in the European courts.
And the European Commission has tried to keep it that way.
While businesses can sue the EU if their interests are undermined by European laws, no such rights are enjoyed by environmental NGOs when they feel the Union’s actions threaten the environment. And now the expert committee appointed to check compliance has ruled this breaches the requirements of the Convention.
At a meeting of the parties involved last week, the EU attempted to weasel out of its commitments promising to just “take note” of the finding that it was failing, rather than “endorse” them.
But other countries found this position unacceptable as previous Compliance Committee findings have always been “endorsed”.
In fact, by voting as a bloc, the EU has always enjoyed an automatic majority, which it has previously used to ensure that whenever other countries were found to be failing to deliver, they were always called-out.
One NGO representative who was present at the meetings said:
“It seems that with the shoe firmly placed on the other foot, the EU didn’t like what it was hearing and was willing to risk not just its reputation, but the foundation of the Aarhus Convention, in order to avoid potentially embarrassing challenges to its actions in court.”
The UN meeting ended without a conclusion. But a damning statement from a coalition of NGOs was delivered by EEB Secretary General Jeremy Wates, who told the assembled delegates:
“The hypocrisy in the EU’s stance is palpable. Every single finding of non-compliance since the establishment of the compliance mechanism in 2002 has been endorsed… with the full support of the EU. The legal argumentation that the European Commission has provided to justify the EU position has been embarrassingly flawed, ignoring some basic principles of international law and even implying that the EU is not capable of being subject to international law. It has misleadingly persisted in suggesting that the Committee’s findings imply that an amendment to the EU Treaties would be required, even after the Committee has clarified that this is not the case.”
It will now be four more years until delegates have another opportunity to formally endorse the finding that the EU has broken its promise to its citizens.
In the meantime NGOs will need to continue to fight for environmental justice and the EU must answer serious questions about why it has worked so hard to block legal rights that should be guaranteed to all Europeans.