Photo: Break Free From Plastic

‘Failing to vote is voting to fail’: Plastics ban proves the power of popular pressure

A tranche of new EU environmental laws, including a ban on single use plastics, has highlighted how people power helps shape European policies – a crucial message ahead of this week’s European elections.

In its final meeting before the European Parliament elections, which are taking place on 23-26 May 2019, the Council of the European Union greenlighted a raft of promising environmental laws.

The most ground-breaking of these is a directive on single-use plastics. Employing the maxim that prevention is better than the cure, the new legislation seeks to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by banning a number of disposable plastic items, including  plates, straws, cotton buds, beverage stirrers, cutlery and expanded polystyrene food containers.

The directive also includes measures to ensure that manufacturers pay for the waste management and clean up of certain single-use plastic items, and that plastic bottles are manufactured with at least 25% recycled material by 2025.

The Council also passed legislation that will advance the EU’s drive to deliver clean energy for all, to streamline reporting rules for environmental laws, and to make fertilisers gentler on the environment.

The you in the EU

Despite the impression amongst many Europeans that Brussels is a faraway place that does not listen to them, the recent progress on environmental issues was, to a large part, thanks to popular pressure from citizens. This was achieved via a variety of means, including petitions, demonstrations, consultations, prioritising the environment in EU-wide surveys, as well as pressuring national governments and MEPs to take action at the European level.

“The high priority European citizens assign to the environment and their active and constant demands for a better and more sustainable future are making a difference in the corridors of power in national capitals and in Brussels,” says Jeremy Wates, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). “But more needs to be done, and fast. We are running out of time to prevent irreversible climate change, to save precious biodiversity from extinction, to eliminate toxic chemicals that are cutting people’s lives short, and more.”

For this reason, Wates argues it is imperative for EU citizens who wish to safeguard the environment not only for future generations, but also for themselves, to go out and vote in this week’s European Parliament elections.

The youth and children of Europe understand this, including those who are too young to vote. “You need to listen to us – we who cannot vote. You need to vote for us, for your children and grandchildren,” Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who inspired the School Strike for Climate, or Fridays for Future, movement, said at the European Parliament.

To make sure that this message is heard, Fridays for Future has organised a global climate strike for Friday 24 May 2019, to coincide with the elections.

The hefty cost of apathy and antipathy

With anti-EU myths circulating, some Europeans are likely to vote for parties that are hostile to the European project. Veteran campaigners say this is not only bad for inter-European peace, stability and solidarity, but will also weaken our ability to rise to the immense common challenges facing our environment, which recognise no national borders or political boundaries.

For others it might feel that their vote is not worth anything or that the European Parliament does not count for much, but this would be a grave mistake: failing to vote could quite literally cost them the Earth. “Failing to vote is voting to fail,” warns the EEB’s Wates.

This is because the European Parliament is the institution in Brussels which directly represents citizens’ interests, while the EU Council indirectly does so through elected national politicians. By electing MEPs who care for the environment and providing them with a mandate to pursue that concern, EU citizens would be playing an active and direct role in shaping Europe’s environmental agenda for the coming years.

The EEB, which represents environmental citizens’ groups from across Europe, believes that the new parliament and the Commission it will help select must, as a matter of urgency, focus its attention on tackling the climate crisis, protecting nature, shifting the focus from economic growth to wellbeing and quality of life, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and narrowing inequalities.

“Everyone who believes in a better deal for nature and a better future for our children needs to get out and vote in these upcoming European elections,” the EEB’s Jeremy Wates urges. “The next five years will be critical, so we absolutely need a European Parliament that is committed to tackling these challenges and that is committed to tough action. Your planet needs you.”