Restrictions placed on civil society are dangerous for both our democracies and our environment. A new report by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) reveals examples of EU governments failing to deliver on laws that should ensure public participation in environmental decision-making.
The ‘Power for the people’ report compiles some of these cases and highlights the issues existing in the EU. It also gives recommendations on how to better include the public and NGOs in environmental matters.
The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) is Europe’s largest network of environmental organisations with around 150 members in over 30 countries.
Francesca Carlsson, Legal Officer at the EEB, said:
“Some of the examples we found are truly shocking. Governments are actively going out of their way to prevent people having a say in decisions that affect their lives. EU law should guarantee the right to participate in environmental decision making, that right is not being afforded equally to all the people and environmental groups in Europe today.”
The space given to civil society in some member states does not reflect the commitments taken with the ratification of the Aarhus Convention, an agreement that ensures that NGOs and the public have access to information, public participation and access to justice on environmental matters.
Francesca Carlsson added:
”The Commission needs to make sure that public participation is respected in the EU. It is its role as the guardian of the treaty to do so.”
In recent years, changes to legislation and in political orientation have sometimes drastically limited the public participation of some NGOs in the EU.
NGOs must have at least 100 members to be allowed to participate in public participation processes.
If an NGO receives more than €23,000 from outside the country, the NGO must be labeled ‘foreign-funded’ and all publications must be stamped as such. Failure to do so can result in the dissolution of the NGO.
Because of serious breaches to the rule of law, Hungary risked losing its voting rights in the EU under article 7 of the Treaty.
Recently, ATTAC Germany – an organisaiton involved in the alter-globalization movement – has lost its charitable status on the basis that its work did not fit with one of the 25 priorities of the government.
In December 2018, during the UN climate talks in Katowice, at least 12 members of civil society groups with UN accreditation were denied entry into Poland as they were considered a ‘threat to security’. This case is particularly disturbing in light of the importance of civil society participation in fighting climate change.
Because of serious breaches to the rule of law, Poland, like Hungary, has been subject to article 7 measures (article 7 is a sanction against a member state which can result in voting rights suspended).
A public consultation was carried out for the expansion of Heathrow airport. But the results of this consultation were published only after the Parliament already took its decision on the matter.
Recommendations from the EEB:
Wide representation of interests is a condition for a healthy democracy. National authorities and the EU need to ensure that NGOs are fully part of the political dialogue and are not only included as a formality;
The Commission needs to guarantee that environmental considerations are always taken into account equally with economic ones;
Member states need to ensure that their national laws are in line with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to ensure freedom of assembly and freedom of expression;
Member states and the EU institutions need to have clear and public guidelines on how policies are decided (budgets, strategies, political lines…)
NGOs have effectively raised public awareness and started public debates thanks to their campaigns. NGO campaigns need to be acknowledged as a direct expression of democratic will.