Is waste a litmus test of Commission policy?
Thoughts on the withdrawal of the ‘Circular Economy’ package.
On the face of it, it is a good and sensible idea to withdraw European Commission proposals on which the Council and Parliament have – often over many years – been unable to reach agreement, or which have already been overtaken by other regulatory provisions. The Commission’s Work Programme includes 80 proposals in total that either are to be withdrawn or have already been overtaken. But is it absolutely necessary to begin with the proposed Directive on the so-called circular economy, a text that has still not been fully discussed?
On 22 January 2015, the day on which the European Commission decided to withdraw the Circular Economy package, the atmosphere was stormy. During a discussion in the Environment Committee (ENVI), Karl-Friedrich Falkenberg, the Commission’s Director-General for the Environment, sought to defend the Commission’s decision without, however, giving more precise information on future action or being able to state the content of the announced new package. At the same time, he admitted that it was difficult to bring the Member States into line given their different starting positions. In some Member States the recycling rate is over 60%, while in others it is around 15%; no uniform calculation method exists at the present time. He also said that the goal is a “genuine circular economy” with high-quality recycling, and that he could only ask the MEPs to trust the Commission’s assurance that the new proposal would be more ambitious than the previous one which the Commission was now withdrawing.
The objectives of the original proposal could already be described as ambitious: 70% of municipal waste and 80% of packaging waste should be recycled by the year 2030, creating 580,000 new jobs and achieving savings amounting to billions. The benefits of recycling were expected to exceed the anticipated savings and to have some very desirable side effects. For example, the measures for recovering raw materials were expected to contribute towards a 2-4% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, according to one representative of the Member States, the Commission’s drafts were too much of a “good intention”, full of “worthy objectives” but with too few “implementable proposals”. Despite that, it was deemed that there were no grounds for asking the Commission for new proposals; on the contrary, Germany, together with 10 other Member States, asked the Commission to stick to the proposal, to improve it through further negotiations and ultimately to produce a feasible Directive.
The Commission’s decision may also be due to its new working methods which aim to prevent proposals from being watered down beyond recognition or decisions being delayed for so long that they are overtaken by reality. Despite this, two fundamental questions need to be asked. The first relates to the proposal withdrawn by the Commission (presented on 2 July 2014; it was therefore no older than six months); Why had the Commission (or the Directorate-General for the Environment) not submitted a more far-reaching proposal at the time? Had that been its intention? Or had it been prevented from doing so? Secondly, what form will the “greater ambitions” take: going for more far-reaching objectives? Or going for increased feasibility with more realistic objectives for implementation? Will the proposals also be accompanied by corresponding measures to convince both business and civic circles of the value of and need for a circular economy?
The second question is perhaps more serious in the long term: was the draft withdrawn only because of the great pressure exerted by EUROBUSINESS, whose declared objective had been this withdrawal? We hope that this was not the case, thus avoiding the conclusion that it could be seen as setting a precedent for the future working methods of the Commission on important and sensitive issues.
Translated from the original text in German