The Aarhus Convention is the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters and is a UN Treaty and part of EU legal order, which sets out our rights, and imposes clear rules for governments and public authorities to help ensure that our environment is protected. Specifically, the Convention covers three core areas – the right to information on environmental issues, the right to participate in shaping decisions that affect our environment, and the right to justice if these rights are not respected. Together, these rights make up the idea of “environmental democracy”.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) compliance committee is the overarching body made up of lawyers of outstanding ability ensuring that governments obey their own laws. It provides the checks and balance, and every single finding of non-compliance, since the establishment of the compliance mechanism in 2002, has been endorsed by the Meeting of Parties (MoPs) – representatives from all 46 countries who signed the convention- with the full support of the European Union.
Therefore the European Union’s refusal to accept a ruling made against it, at the latest meeting in September in Montenegro, set a precedent demonstrating that the EU thinks that it is above the law. It verifies a lack of respect for EU law and democracy as we know it.
Pat Swords BE CEng FIChemE CEnv MIEMA attended the Meeting of Parties and this is my brief summary from his Thoughts on Aarhus MoP 6, the Rule of Law and the EU Comission
A functional democracy has a ‘separation of powers’, the typical division being three branches: a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary. This division of responsibilities is to limit any one branch from exercising the core functions of another. The intent is to prevent the concentration of power and provide for checks and balances.
“How the EU used its position to bully and block a legal ruling in International Law against it and prevent its citizens accessing their rights to challenge it” makes depressing reading about a fundamental breach of public trust, of corruption which does not bode well for our democracy and BREXIT negotiations.
As Pat says, “we have slow moving train wrecks, which keep repeating themselves, as citizens cannot intervene or more to the point, they are ruthlessly prevented from intervening.” Pat is talking about Ireland, but his comments certainly pertain to Scotland and other areas of the UK: “….peer into the upper strata of a country, whose ‘division of powers’ systematically concentrates decision making into the hands of the few in Central Government, then is it no surprise that the obvious happens. If you are in a position to make decisions over others, then you will most likely do so in a manner which favours yourself and those who support you – and that is the starting point.”
Pat explains the unique workings of the compliance committee, his involvement, and the lack of “fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive” treatment by the Irish courts. This same abuse of our public democratic rights is reflected in ‘communications’ from Scotland and other parts of the UK. It serves the vested interests of the few. Pat describes the details of just how the EU Commission tried influence the rulings and the fiasco that followed. He then summed it up:
“What was witnessed at and in the build-up to the 6th Meeting of the Parties was an
unaccountable, unelected bureaucracy abusing the rule of law, both at EU and
International level, to ensure it could not be called to account, by an adequate
‘separation of powers’, in which EU citizens had effective rights to justice. Neither is it acceptable as an EU citizen, to sit powerless in an international forum, and have to
listen to the representatives of other States, namely Norway and Switzerland, stand
up for your rights and prevent abuses of International Law occurring by what is supposed to be the administration, which represents you and your interests.”
This debacle has put the spotlight on the EU’s internal decision-making processes.
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].
Like Pat, many of us had faith in the ‘system’ and believed that the rule of law would prevail. The disappointment and frustration is palpable.
This does not bode well for the Brexit ‘divorce’ proceedings.