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Blair’s second chance to make a lasting mark

ImageThe UK assumes the presidency of the European Council in July. Before it does so it would be wise to look back at missed opportunities during the country’s last spell in the top chair back in 1998

This July the UK government assumes the Presidency of the European Council for the following six months. The Prime Minister has announced that one of the two key themes will be developing policies to combat climate change.

So, what can realistically be achieved during this period of ascendancy? There are significant limits to what any such Presidency has time to achieve.

Probably the most important role is to be able to set the agenda, particularly for inter-governmental discussions. Effectively, you decide what is to be discussed whenever Ministers from each of the 25 Member States come together.

During each presidency, there will be at least one formal meeting, usually in Brussels, of all the relevant ministers. You control what is debated, both in the formal (minuted) parts. You have the same control during the informal sessions, usually over lunch, sometimes dinner as well. Your job will also be to draw up the formal conclusions.

Effectively holding the Presidency allows you to promote the policies you favour, by getting your fellow governments formally to endorse them.

European Council presidencies don¹t come around that often. The last one occurred in the first half of 1998, starting only a few months after Tony Blair became Prime Minister.

Interestingly, the urgency of addressing climate change was also listed as a major priority then: not that surprisingly, as the Kyoto Treaty was signed in the days before that Presidency started. Coincidentally, the Treaty will have come into force only just before this latest Presidency ¬ in practice, on the 16th.of this month.

During those six months in 1998, the UK government concentrated hard on environmental issues. As well as the usual Council meetings, it convened a unique meeting between transport and environment ministers; it held a big showpiece conference in Glasgow entitled “Making Sustainability Pay”; it got the Council of Ministers to consider in depth a strategy paper drawn up by the European Commission entitled “Energy Efficiency in the European Community.” (We weren¹t a Union then!).

The then energy minister, John Battle, endlessly repeated the mantra that “the cheapest, cleanest and most publicly acceptable energy is the energy you don¹t use.”

All of which persuaded other governments to pass some formal resolutions, that bear looking at again some seven years later.

For instance, one stated that “energy use in buildings is a major source of CO2 emissions. Member States will undertake an early review of their national standards to identify area where stricter standards might cost-effectively be applied”.

It would be perfectly reasonable to question whether many governments have actually honoured that undertaking with any thoroughness.

The second area where Council resolutions can change things is by prodding the permanent bureaucracy into action. Formally Governments cannot instruct the Commission to do anything. It can only “invite”.

Accordingly, the Commissions was “invited” to “make proposals for common action progressively to reduce/remove fossil fuel and other subsidies, tax schemes and regulations which counteract an efficient use of energy.”

Doubtless the Council were thinking of the way in which regional funds are used ¬ and sadly continue to be used, regularly to fund projects that increase energy consumption. Plus the enormous tax write-offs still given to those who operate oilfields, or nuclear power stations.

That was not all Council of Ministers agreed. Having stated that “the Council emphasises the importance of actively promoting energy efficiency”, it was agreed that “in this context, the Council invites” ¬ that word again ¬ “the Commission to introduce proposals for differentiation in tax levels for energy saving products, so as to allow Member States to provide appropriate economic incentives for such products.”

The classic tax distortion covers Value Added Tax, the one tax every Member State is required to raise. Under Annex H of the Sixth VAT Directive, Member States are overtly permitted to levy the reduced rate of 5% on energy consumption. Equally, they are apparently not allowed to equalise that rate on any energy conservation materials that you or I might buy and install ourselves.

Despite this “invitation”, there been no subsequent attempt by the Commission to “make proposals for common action” to remove this and other distortions which currently militate against “the cheapest and cleanest” energy option.

The saddest aspect of all these European Council policy resolutions of 1998 is just how little notice anybody took of them subsequently. Had they done so, the chances are that right across Europe we should now be burning far less energy than we currently do.

Those preparing the next UK Presidency might do worse than dust these old resolutions down now. And then challenge both their peers, and the European Commission, to start implementing them. After all, better late than never.


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