Jean-Claude Juncker presents the Commission's Work Programme to the European Parliament. Photo: European Union 2014 - European Parliament. (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license).
MEPs fight to save Europe’s air quality, women’s rights and recycling plans
Europe’s “fresh start” under the Juncker Presidency has already run into opposition from MEPs. A draft document leaked to the press last week shows that key EU environmental proposals on clean air, waste and recycling (the so-called ‘circular economy’), and stronger protection for pregnant workers had been ‘discontinued’. This week the European Commission publicly adopted its 2015 work programme. Unfortunately, the leaks were accurate.
In presenting its work programme, the Commission sets out a list of what it will do and a timetable for the year ahead as well as identifying draft legislation to drop or put on hold.
It was a much anticipated announcement since it is the first formal opportunity for Jean-Claude Juncker’s new Commission team to set out their stall. We have been assured that this Commission will mark a ‘fresh start’ – rethinking past practices, cutting unnecessary bureaucracy and reconnecting to the general public across Europe.
The Work Programme starts promisingly enough:
“This Commission was voted into office with a commitment to make a difference: to do different things and to do things differently. Citizens expect the EU to make a difference on the big economic and social challenges.”
But the scrapping of these key initiatives reawakened the criticisms leveled at the new Commissioners in their parliamentary hearings in the autumn in which Juncker was particularly criticised for demoting environmental protection and sustainable development. In the hearings, Labour and other Socialist Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) threatened to veto Commission candidates until environment concerns were given more prominence. We won concessions from Juncker in that battle.
Once again in the last few weeks, MEPs have been leading the charge to ensure that concrete action takes place. And it is a fundamental battle about how we address those big economic and social challenges the Commission talks about.
To ensure a sustainable, job-rich recovery, we need initiatives which cut costs to our public health bill, create jobs and ensure that they are safe, good quality jobs for men and women. These 3 proposals headed in this direction:
- Tackling air pollution: Europeans suffer 400,000 premature deaths a year from ill health related to air pollution, 29,000 in the UK alone. Thousands more are suffering long term health damage. The cost to our healthcare system and wider economy due to productivity losses is €3 billion a year. MEPs have urged the UK government to take action now tackle air pollution, following the European Court of Justice ruling against the UK to establish an air quality action plan.
- “Circular Economy”: this EU package presented by the Commission only in July this year was meant to tackle resource efficiency, especially Waste Policy. The Commission’s own impact assessment shows the huge potential for new job creation, recovery of secondary raw materials for our industries, and other environmental benefits. The package would create up to 180,000 new jobs across Europe, like those being created on Teesside, and increase EU recycling rates to 70% by 2030.
- Improvements in safety and health at work for women who are pregnant, have recently given birth or are breastfeeding. New rules were adopted by a large majority of the European Parliament in its first reading on 20 October 2010. They have nonetheless been blocked by Member State governments (Council) for over three years. The proposal provides forward-looking measures including 20 weeks fully paid maternity leave, strengthened measures to protect women from dismissal on return and two weeks fully paid paternity leave also available to same sex couples. The measures are still likely to be withdrawn, though the Commission has at least promised to propose alternatives.
Kicking these essential pieces of legislation down the legislative line will have serious implications for public health not just in the UK but right across the EU. It’s not a great start for the new Commission.
Today in presenting the Commission’s workplan to MEPs, we were assured that these initiatives were not ‘dead’ but were being withdrawn to be strengthened and improved. They can be assured that Labour MEPs are watching these files very closely.
The Commission must keep social, environmental and health issues at the forefront of the EU’s agenda. The best and most effective way to achieve change on health and environmental issues like this is to work together for effective solutions. My colleagues in the European Parliament are ready to engage to cut our health bill, create good jobs and in this way, support a sustainable recovery. We wait for the Commission to come to the table with their proposals.