Environment for Europe: looking back to look forward

On 5-7 October, environment ministers and high-level delegates from the UNECE region – covering the whole of Europe including Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia – are gathering at Nicosia, Cyprus. During the 9th Environment for Europe Ministerial Conference, they are discussing pan-European solutions to common environmental challenges.

Thirty years since the first Environment for Europe meeting, and with threats to environmental democracy looming large across Europe, John Hontelez, former EEB Secretary General, asks “What future for the Environment for Europe process in times of war and multiple crises?”

In 1991, Josef Vavroušek, the first (and last) Environment Minister of Czechoslovakia, after the Velvet Revolution put an end to the communist era in that country, initiated the 1st Environment for Europe conference. Building on the end of the cold war and the high hopes for a common European future, he gathered environment ministers from all over Europe, including the former Soviet Union and six countries that were still struggling to leave that Union, at Dobříš castle, believing in the need to collaborate across the region to overcome the environmental damages done and to work on common solutions.

I was amongst the many representatives of environmental citizens organisations that travelled to Dobříš, bringing colleagues from the East and West together in a parallel event that would later turn into the European ECO Forum.

The environmental movement across Europe owes a lot to Vavroušek for his Dobříš conference, for his vision of a pan-European future of common solutions for common environmental challenges, based on shared ethical values such as equality and inclusiveness. Tragically, he passed away too early in 1995 to bring his vision to full fruition.

Why was Dobris important?

Starting in the late 1980s, international networks of environmental citizens organisations started to support the emerging independent environmental movement in Central and Eastern European countries, countries that were still ruled by communist parties then. While nature conservation was generally accepted as a societal activity, these organisations had very limited freedom to work on environmental issues and to express themselves. They had to fear repression. In the following years, rapid, radical changes occurred across those countries, and the serious environmental and health crises formed an important accelerator.

Colleagues from environmental groups in Central and Eastern Europe in the early days felt that they could learn from Western countries for a better environment. There were varying views on what was the essential difference with their own situation: was it a state-run economy versus a capitalist one, or was it totalitarianism versus democracy?

“A functioning environmental democracy is needed to effectively tackle environmental problems and to apply solutions that are supported by people.”

As participant in these discussions, I personally have always defended that not capitalism, but democracy was essential. But democracy in a deeper sense than having more than one political party and elections every four years. A functioning environmental democracy is needed to effectively tackle environmental problems and to apply solutions that are supported by people. Sustainable development is possible only in a truly democratic society.

A functioning democracy requires freedom of speech, freedom of organisation, a free and pluralistic press, rights to access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice. It definitely also requires independent academia, research institutes and judiciary. And it requires politicians that truly believe they are servants of the people, that they have to listen to citizens and work with them instead of intimidating and persecuting them.

Dobříš kicked off a European process in which representatives of environmental organisations became more than a silent audience: these representatives were gradually allowed to attend all negotiations and to come with comments and proposals. Environmental citizens organisations have been able to keep the ministers and their representatives to account, pressing for real impact beyond empty words. And these representatives were also able to initiate new debates.

The EEB are in Nicosia for the 9th Environment for Europe ministerial conference.

Our presence at negotiations also put an end to conclusions based on a lowest common denominator, often that of the USA, which wanted the Environment for Europe process to be no more than a vehicle for aid to the former communist countries, without any common political ambition and commitment.

The Aarhus Convention, a lasting legacy

The Aarhus Convention, the first Multilateral Environmental Agreement to codify environmental democracy, is undoubtedly the most important and lasting result of the Environment for Europe process. It is a core element of creating a functioning democracy as a precondition for sustainable development. The idea of the Convention came from us, the environmental organisations, and we had quite some influence on the final formulation of the Convention. While old EU Member States initially saw it as a tool to assist the new democracies only, the Convention has improved and is still improving environmental democracy inside the EU as well.

A decisive element of the Aarhus Convention is the compliance mechanism. Whereas in most other conventions only states that are a party can challenge non-compliance by another party, the Aarhus Convention allows any citizen of any state to challenge non-compliance by a government. This has proven a powerful tool in exposing governments that fail to apply the Convention correctly.

Does the EFE process have a future?

Looking at the current situation, we see that environmental democracy, a precondition for sustainable development, is far from established. Independent media and judiciary are lacking or under pressure, even in a few EU countries. In some other countries civil society organisations are severely repressed. The most obvious examples are Russia and Belarus, where essential human and citizens rights are violated, but in many other countries across the region environmental defenders must fear repression.

In that sense, the hopes and ambitions of Dobříš are only partially fulfilled. Vavroušek, if he was alive still, would not be happy. He would have seen progress, including the expansion of the EU, which on balance has proven positive for strengthening environmental policies and democracy. He would have seen some other initiatives beyond the Aarhus Convention with lasting impact. But Europe more broadly is not in great shape, the common sustainable development agenda is weak and in danger.

Indeed, since February this year, we have been confronted with a devastating blow to the idea of a common European future for the years to come. The illegal invasion of Ukraine started by Russia and the brutal repression and murder of innocent people puts into question the future of Environment for Europe.

Maybe the conference should continue, because most countries in Europe are societies still where governments, civil society and some businesses, want to make progress on sustainable development. And, while we have seen progress in specific areas, the overall environmental challenges for our continent and the world are no less serious than they were 30 years ago. So there is reason to go on, but we it must go on with a focus on real results and not as a smokescreen for poor behaviour at home, and certainly not as greenwashing for the totalitarian regimes in Russia and Belarus, or for anti-democracy trends in Hungary, or for the ongoing absence of democracy in most Central Asian countries.

Sustainable development without peace is impossible. If we want to move on with the Environment for Europe process, governments in all countries of Europe should make real environmental democracy their number one priority.