As European citizens who care deeply about the democratic values of the EU, we can only feel a sense of shame that the EU has gone into an international forum with a position that threatened to undermine democracy and accountability in a range of countries extending throughout the wider Europe and Central Asia. And the primary reason for this is the European Commission’s stubborn resistance to having its decisions on environmental matters challengeable before the EU courts in the way that the decisions of national authorities may be challenged at national level [Jeremy Wates, EEB Secretary General].
The EU constantly portrays itself as a beacon of democracy and law in the modern world. But it often does not live up to this ideal. This week, at the meeting of the parties to the Aarhus Convention, an International Treaty which grants the public certain rights in environmental decision making such as access to information, participation and access to justice, the EU failed to accept a ruling made against it in relation to access to justice for citizens.
The "Remainer" crowd in the UK and the Guardian tell us that it is not the European Union which is the problem but individual Member States :
If the EU does have a democratic deficit, that is because it is made up of countries with their own problems with public engagement in politics. Plus governments have a habit of blaming “Brussels” when things go wrong, which feeds the idea of an unelected, untamed bureaucracy. As one senior EU official puts it: “Anything you like you claim for yourselves and anything you don’t like you blame on Brussels [The Guardian].”
However, here we have a situation where NGOs from various Member and Non Member States are trying (unsuccessfully) to hold the EU bureaucratic behemoth to account. Indeed, Norway and Switzerland (both outside the EU) were both forceful in their condemnation of EU's refusal to accept the ruling made against them :
Today during the plenary not a single Party or stakeholder supported the EU position. On the contrary, every delegation that spoke on the issue made very explicit that these amendments were not acceptable to them as they would undermine the Convention in the long term without any legal grounds justifying such amendments.
Any EU decision to call for a vote on this issue would:
• Destroy the consensus-based spirit that is the fundamental bedrock of the Convention.
• Send a clear signal to all other Parties that their views do not count.
• Enable the EU to force the rejection of a legally correct decision on the basis of political motives.
• Undermine the rules of procedure of the Convention.
We firmly believe that the amendments of the decision proposed by the EU would strongly undermine the Convention and its compliance mechanism. [Furthermore] the EU would return from Montenegro with its reputation in disgrace, having lost all credibility as a proponent of democratic norms.
[Statement from Norway and Swiss delegation].
But it gets even worse. As one NGO noted :
A day after European Commission President Juncker declared the rule of law to be one of three principles that must anchor the European Union in his State of the Union address, the EU has been heavily criticised for its failure to accept an international panel’s ruling that it is not ensuring adequate access to justice for its citizens at EU level.
I have to be honest. I didn't think the NGOs had it in them to stand up to the might of the EU Commission. I'm happy to be proved wrong.
The reality is the European Union is just like any large State Power that has ever existed in the world. It dislikes immensely the idea of the individual citizen having a say in it's affairs or challenging it's decisions in the courts. It seeks to consolidate it's power, rather than divest it. We saw this during the Irish vote on the Lisbon Treaty. We are seeing it again in relation to it's obligations to the Aarhus Convention, the ultimate citizen empowering Treaty.
The full statement made by the coalition of NGOs is well worth a read for those interested in the technical details of what happened during last weeks events :