5 ways opportunistic lobbyists are using coronavirus to attack EU environmental laws

With the terrible impact of the coronavirus being felt across Europe, some in Brussels haven’t wasted any time in looking for opportunities for big business. 

Anton Lazarus shares five examples of corporate lobbyists begging for delays to crucial environmental rules. 

Many European leaders have come out in support of using the EU’s Green Deal to help reset Europe’s economy following corona-shutdowns. Earlier this week 180 decision makers, CEOs and NGOs – including the EEB – formed an alliance to back a green recovery, built around the Green Deal.

But while many of us are reflecting on what really matters in life, and clinging to hope for a better future, some lobby groups are busy pleading for special treatment and an enormous roll back of EU environmental protections.   

Here are five times opportunistic lobbyists have been caught using the current crisis to try to undermine important climate and environmental protections. 

1. The Agrilobby: delaying action for a better food system 

This first case is bad news: intense lobbying by agricultural businesses to delay crucial food, farming and nature strategies has succeeded. The European Commission confirmed this week that the potentially transformative ‘Farm to Fork’ and Biodiversity strategies will now not be delivered later this month, as previously expected. 

A different way of farming could support rural jobs and provide good, healthy and local food to people all over Europe.

Once published and implemented, the two strategies could transform Europe’s countryside, setting aside 10% of all farms for nature, boosting a nature-friendly agroecological approach to farming and legally protecting 30% of all of Europe’s land and sea. 

Despite the new food strategy being designed to support hardworking farmers and ensure land is protected for future generations, members of the European People’s Party shared a bizarre press release claiming the strategy would set “new rules”.

The EEB’s farming expert Celia Nyssens strongly rejected this claim, telling Euractiv:

“Strategies set out a clear direction of travel and plan actions to address problems – exactly what we need to do in these challenging times.” 

The Commission’s decision to delay the strategies comes just days after the Commission’s own scientific advisors joined calls for urgent and radical change to Europe’s food system.  

2. The Plastic lobby: creating confusion to defend plastic forks

This one’s actually quite strange. European plastic industry front group EuPC wrote to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to demand the EU’s popular single use plastic ban be delayed or even totally thrown out. 

The plastic lobby group’s letter complains about “bashing on plastics” and says that “the Corona Virus (COVID-19) has shown us that not all materials are the same”. They argue single use plastics are essential for hygiene and health and safety.

Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, a circular economy expert at the EEB, says the lobby group are talking about two different things: “The EU’s popular plastic ban specifically targets the top ten items that are most commonly washed up on beaches, like cotton buds, plastic straws and packaging. The law has exemptions for medical devices and does not apply to the masks, gowns and gloves needed in hospitals and care homes all over Europe, and which make a negligible contribution to marine pollution.”

The EU’s Single Use Plastic Directive targets the plastic items most commonly found on beaches.

Schweitzer continued: “We are concerned about cynical attempts to use the virus to derail legislation designed to serve the environment, public health and wellbeing. It’s important the businesses genuinely struggling to comply with environmental laws get support.”

Fortunately, the European Commission appears to agree, a spokesperson told Euractiv that there were no plans for delays and the deadline would have to be respected.

3. The Chemicals lobby wants a six-month stay on toxic transparency

A number of instances of chemical industry lobbying have been identified, including a 25 March letter from the Federation of German Industries (BDI) to Bjorn Hansen, Director of the European Chemical Agency. The letter asks for at least a six month delay on numerous important measures designed to protect people from potentially harmful substances. 

EEB’s chemical expert Tatiana Santos says the letter is “outrageous”:  “The letter asks for delays to transparency for about at least 205 substances of very high concern – these are toxic chemicals which are currently being added to thousands of consumer products. It also seeks to extend the use of one of the worst chemicals on the planet – PFOA – which was recently made famous by the Mark Ruffalo movie Dark Waters.” 

Santos added: “At a time when people are worried about their health, delaying measures designed to protect us is highly irresponsible”. 

Fortunately, in a reply dated last week, Hansen explained it was not within ECHA’s control to make the exceptions they demanded.

4. The Car lobby: pleading to put brakes on road safety, emissions and environmental rules 

Also on 25 March, European auto industry lobby groups united to urge European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to relax new EU rules, including CO2 targets for cars.

Alongside pleading for more EU money for their members, the letter claims that the virus outbreak “upsets” plans they had made “for complying with existing and future EU laws and regulations” and asks for “some adjustment” to the timing of laws to improve road safety, cut emission and protect the environment. 

Responding to the letter campaign group Transport & Environment wrote:  “A closer look at the facts around the climate (and green tech) targets shows that such a plea [to delay] is currently unfounded and potentially damaging for the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of the car industry in Europe.”

As part of a comprehensive rebuke of the industry position the organisation’s Clean Vehicle Director Julia Poliscanova said: “While the overall economic recovery is crucial, we shouldn’t let some opportunistic carmakers use the crisis to shamelessly roll back the EU climate targets for cars. All three German carmakers, VW, Daimler and BMW, have rightly acknowledged this is not needed.”

5. Business Europe: no holds barred attempt to stop all climate and environmental regulation

Finally, perhaps the most far-reaching call for delay came from industry umbrella group ‘Business Europe’, whose members include a who’s who of major industry players. 

In an extraordinary letter, Business Europe highlight the significant impact of the virus on lobbyists’ “capacity to engage with policymakers”. They call for all consultations and impact assessments to be delayed – a move that would effectively halt all progress on environmental legislation and cause the European Green Deal to grind to a halt.
In the letter and a tweet sharing their position, Business Europe describe climate and environmental regulations as “non-essential”.

A “non-exhaustive list” of the environmental protections they would like stopped is included in an annex to the letter. It includes a request for delays to the EU’s 2030 climate targets and the extension of deadlines for cleaning up industrial processes using so-called Best Available Techniques. 

EEB Industrial Policy Manager Christian Schaible dismissed the idea of “non-essential climate action” and called the request to extend deadlines “dangerous”: 

“Industry has known about the need to meet these new rules for many years. There may be a handful of cases where pollution abatement equipment was going to be fitted at the very last minute, but extending the Europe-wide deadline for compliance would do little more than reward some of Europe’s worst polluters.”  

Schaible added: “At a time when public health is rightly at the top of the agenda, it’s extraordinary to see some of Europe’s biggest companies effectively coming out in support of pollution. Responsible industry would be looking to be part of the solution, and playing their part in building a cleaner, greener future for everyone.”