Outgoing Irish Presidency Gets Mixed Reviews

BRUSSELS, Belgium, July 1, 2004 (ENS) - Today the European Presidency changes hands, as it does every six months. The 2004 Irish Presidency is at an end and the Dutch take over the Presidency until December 31, 2004. The Irish Presidency oversaw the enlargement of the European Union from 15 to 25 member states. Environmental advances were many, Irish officials said in their progress report, but environmentalists said they could have done more.

Irish Environment Minister Martin Cullen said the last meeting of European environment ministers under the Irish Presidency, on Monday, made progress in reducing the sulfur content in marine fuels and in getting political agreement to overhaul the law that governs the quality of bathing water.


Container ship at Teesmouth, England (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Cullen said the law relating to the sulfur content of marine fuels will enable the marine sector to follow the reductions in sulfur dioxide emissions that have been achieved in road traffic and other land-based sources over the years and will support action being taken towards improved marine fuels internationally. The new standard "will be of particular benefit in and around busy ports and on inland waterways," the minister said.

"It is expected that when fully implemented, the proposal will result in an annual reduction of sulfur dioxide of approximately 500,000 metric tons or 20 percent of total annual emissions in the [European] Community."

But the European Environmental Bureau, a federation of 143 nongovernmental organizations in 31 countries dealing with environmental issues, was not impressed with the Environment Council's agreement to reduce sulfur emissions from ships.

"The position reached by the Irish Presidency will only lead to SO2 reductions of less than 10 percent," said John Hontelez, EEB secretary general. "This is not enough to protect people's health and to combat the acidification of forests and lakes."

"Much deeper cuts of 80 percent are needed for effective protection, which is also the reduction target unanimously agreed by the European Parliament," he said.

On the crucial issue of climate change, the EEB gave the Irish Presidency mixed reviews. "Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the EU's stance made Russian ratification possible. This is certainly a positive development," the EEB said, "but EU energy and climate policy suffered a serious setback when the Council at the last minute rejected a deal with the Parliament on the Eco-Design Directive, due to strenuous and self-serving industry lobbying."


Irish Environment Minister Martin Cullen led the European Union's environmental efforts over the past six months. (Photo courtesy Irish Presidency)
The Environment Council adopted two sets of conclusions - one on the prevention and recycling of waste that will shape the thematic strategy to be brought forward by the Europen Commission in 2005.

The second set of Council conclusions relate to the conservation of biological diversity in relation to EU and international commitments, aiming to stem the loss of biodiversity by 2010 and reflect EU priorities in key areas such as protected areas and implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

In addition the Council held policy debates on the proposed chemicals regulation REACH and the proposed directive on mining waste. While no conclusions were reached, these debates will assist future Presidencies in the ongoing preparation of these legislative proposals.

The environment ministers considered a proposal from the European Commission to give consent for the placing of a genetically modified maize product on the market in the EU, but a qualified majority to either to adopt or overturn the proposal was not possible.

The ministers resolved all outstanding issues on the text of the proposed regulation on the cross-border shipment of waste that incorporates a relevant OECD decision into Community law, and to update and bring greater legal clarity to the current 1993 Waste Shipments Regulation. Full agreement by all member states is expected shortly, the Council said.

In a statement that encouraged Greenpeace, the ministers adopted a statement emphasizing the need for "urgent action to eliminate imports of illegally harvested timber into the EU as a contribution to fostering sustainable development by halting the loss of biodiversity and protecting the environment."

The ministers urged the European Commission, which is the executive branch, to present its reports and proposals on the issue of illegal trade in timber "without delay."

In Australia, where Greenpeace has been campaigning to move the government to ban illegal timber, the campaigners were heartened by the European Environment Council's statement.


Illegally cut logs find their way onto world markets because tropical woods are in demand. (Photo courtesy Rainforest Live)
Greenpeace forests campaigner Stephen Campbell said, "Illegal logging is a global catastrophe - it fuels civil wars, undermines regional security, involves human rights abuses and contributes to loss of biodiversity and climate change. It is totally unacceptable that Australia should continue to be involved in the illegal timber trade."

The Australian government "has already acknowledged that Australia currently imports illegal timber from its Pacific and Asian neighbours, particularly Papua New Guinea and Indonesia," he said.

In their overall report on Ireland's sixth Presidency of the European Union, Irish officials said they "continued to promote the Unionís progressive approach to environmental protection and sustainable development."

The Presidency "placed a high emphasis on climate change," the report states, and points to agreement on proposed law that will ensure a cost-efficient approach to greenhouse gas emissions reductions globally and the transfer of clean technologies to developing countries and countries in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Among the achievements in the food safety area, Irish officials pointed to agreement on controls on food and animal feed and the finalization of the long running Hygiene Package which consolidates and updates EU legislation on food hygiene.

Following a ministerial and stakeholder conference in Dundalk, an agreement on a work program to accelerate environmentally friendly fishing practices was concluded by the Presidency.

A Council Regulation was adopted which will eliminate as far as possible dolphin deaths in European waters and the Council decided to establish and fund Regional Advisory Councils which will involve local fishing communities and draw on local and regional expertise in the management of fisheries.

"The Irish Presidency got the new European Constitution finished," concluded Hontelez of the EEB. "That was very important, but it failed to move away from this new Euro-dogma of competitiveness at all costs."