A Greener President – EU beware

26/01/2009

This morning, I drove my old Saab to the annual vehicle inspection. Thank God, there were only some minor faults.

I remembered another visit to the vehicle inspection company, Svensk Bilprovning. It was in the early 1990s, before Sweden´s accession to the EU. As a junior civil servant in the Ministry for the Environment, I was suddenly ordered to accompany the high-level visitor to the advanced test-centre for car emissions. Something urgent had come up, and neither the Swedish Minister nor the State Secretary could be present. I had never been to the place before.

Unfortunately, the driver took Carlo Ripa di Meana and me to an ordinary, rather small, vehicle inspection site. The staff was surprised to see the limo roll into the parking space and the waiting line.

It took some embarrassing minutes to get the right adress and driving directions. Luckily, the EC Commissioner for the Environment didn´t seem to be that annoyed, and the visit to the real test centre went well.

Some years later, I visit the Mecca for car emission specialists, California. Experts at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) showed us the most advanced low-emission vehicles at that time, most of them Japanese. It was the first time I saw hybrid cars. They were tested in California because the State leads the world in the fight against air pollution from vehicles.

Just before driving to the annual car inspection, I surfed the web and found the news that Barack Obama was going to overrule the Bush administration´s decision not to let California and other States move forward on more stringent emission standards. It was later confirmed.President Obama also called for federal fuel efficiency standard from model year 2001.

I wrote a post on Aftonbladets Europablogg, the headline being “The US could take the lead in environmental policy, leaving the EU behind “.

That conclusion is not so far-fetched as it could sometimes seem during the Bush era. The United States has much to be proud in the environment field. Now, at the same time as Barack Obama and progressive States are bringing new momentum to environmental policy, the EU is dragging its feet after the enlargement with twelve new members. A number of European governments are being very cautious about new legislation.

Maybe in 5-10 years time, we will see a Pacific Region driving world environmental policy in important areas, with California leading the US, Japan moving forward on resource management, China on energy-efficient products and countries like South Korea on green innovation.

I do hope the EU will be in the race, but it will take more courage from political leaders. Listing too much to European industry concerns in the short-run is a great danger for long-term competitiveness.

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Obama gets tough on lobbyists

22/01/2009

The presidential order to close down Guantanamo is great news.

But news reports from Obamas first day in office, yesterday, also caught my attention. Including tougher rules on lobbying.

Anyone working for the Obama adminstration has to sign a contract not to lobby the US government while Barack Obama is president, according to the Los Angeles Times. So, if you leave the administration, you could be in quarantine until 2017 if Obama is reelected.

People who have already been lobbyists cannot work within similar areas during their first two years in the Obama administration.

The new president also took measures to improve transparency.

Barack Obama starts of well. Extensive lobbying has become a major problem for democracy.

While Obama is true to his vision of politics,  the European Commission have not even implemented a mandatory register of lobbyists in Brussels.

I have written a book on lobbyism and transparency in the EU (Maktkamp Europa) and talked about the subject in Brussels. To me, stricter control of lobbyists is a necessity to increase the legitimacy of the European institutions.

Will Obama´s decision give new impetus to campaigns like ALTER-EU? I hope so.

Other blogs on Obama, transparency, lobbyism: Bente Kalsnes


Swedish banks and Latvia´s crisis

14/01/2009

Latvia is in the headlines around the world, after the violence yesterday night. There are of course a number of reasons for the protests (10 ooo peaceful demonstrators before a few hundreds started attacking the parliament).

In a short note on Aftonbladet´s Europablogg, I adress one factor. The irresponsible way Swedish banks has acted the last years, lending money in Latvia without any reasonable caution.631414_skyscraper_-_solar_stone_riga_city_3

When the financial crisis hit, the Swedish government was eager to minimize the losses of the banks. Anders Borg´s Ministry of Finance did what it could to convince Latvia not to devaluate its currency. Instead, Sweden and the IMF pressed Latvia to implement drastic reductions in teacher´s and nurses´salaries.

General mistrust of the present government and corruption charges are other factors behind the protests. But the Swedish government should take its responsibility for this crisis very seriously indeed.

Other blogs on this issue: From Latvia with love, The Congress BlogAll about Latvia, Lettland, Veiko Spolitis


Don´t sacrifice the Arctic

13/01/2009

The gas crisis threatens the Arctic environment. That is the main message in Aftonbladet´s editorial  today, written by me.951422_alaskan_pipeline_1

We argue that the disruption of Russian gas supply through Ukraine will further increase the political pressure to exploit oil and gas in the sensitive environment around the North Pole.

In November, the European Commission put forward a first strategy paper on the Arctic, where the percieved advantages of exploiting energy resources were described. However, drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic can cause irreversible damage.

The environmental protection of the Arctic is much to weak. In the editorial, we urge the Swedish government to put forward concrete proposals well in time for the EU Presidency this autumn.

UPDATE: Our editorial is quoted in Eurotopic´s press survey today.


Netherland

10/01/2009

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Joseph O´Neill concludes his critically acclaimed novel Netherland with a scene from the Staten Island ferry. Hans van den Broek, the main character, recollects the view over Manhattan during a trip with his mother a few years earlier:

“a world concentrated most glamorously of all, it goes almost without saying, in the lilac arches of two amazingly high towers going up above all others”

I finished reading Netherland  a few days after having taken the Staten Island ferry myself. It was, I must confess, my first visit to New York since early 2001. Of course I have read and heard much about the reactions to 9/11. Now, I visited the WTC Site and the provisional exhibition there. But is was first on the Staten Island ferry that I really was struck by the scar in the Manhattan skyline.

Netherland evolves around Hans, his family and the strange character of Chuck Ramkissoon the years after the Twin Towers collapsed. I found the main story and the characters somewhat disappointing, after the enthusiastic reviews. To me, Netherland lacks the magic of The Great Gatsby.

The strength of Joseph O´Neill novel is his way of describing people´s reaction to 9/11 in a subtle yet strong way. Reading the novel at the same time as visiting New York was an emotionally deep experience. I thought I had some comprehension of how Americans reacted to 9/11, but now it´s clear to me; such a trauma can only be fully understood by those who experience it first-hand.

Joseph O´Neill uses the game of cricket to connect Hans´world of investment banking to New Yorks taxi-drivers and restaurant workers. It is a clever way of describing the many facets of American life, including the darker sides.

One day, after having run into the wall of bureaucracy surrounding driving licenses, Hans steps out into the street:

“As I stood there, thrown by Herald Square´s flows of pedestrians and the crazed traffic diagonals and the gray, seemingly bottomless gutter pools, I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleamingly adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers. The rinsed taxis, hssing over fresh slush, shone lika grapefruits; but if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.”

In O´Neill´s novel, Hans finally emerges from the chaos after 9/11. How far is the US, or the rest of the world?