Ask what the European Union really does, and one of the first things that comes to mind is its leadership on environmental policy.
The "go green" attitude is rooted in the modern European mindset so deeply that it influences almost every sphere Europe touches now. There are already some positive results of that push that cannot be overlooked: the air we breathe is cleaner than in the 1950s, soil is much less fed with pesticides, and European rivers and waterways are clearer.
Not all progress has been made just because of goodwill and leadership from the EU. Pesticides are on the retreat because of their side effects on plants and animals and high cost, too, and cleaner air has a lot to do with technologies such as cleaner-burning engines and the fact that so much heavy industry has moved to the developing world.
But still, European states are frontrunners of eco-friendly policies, especially compared to their closest ally the United States. These policies are something to be rather proud of, irrespective of whether you believe in climate change or share America's skepticism -- you simply can't beat the fact that fewer emissions or cleaner ponds are good.
The EU is not resting on its green laurels, and is mapping out an even more ambitious agenda: reduction of greenhouse gases by 20 percent by 2020; generating 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by the same year; and more limits on carbon emissions from cars. These are just some examples of agreed -- or soon to be approved -- targets.
This week has brought another one. France and Britain unveiled a plan to reduce value-added taxes on green products and they want to make it mandatory across the EU. It is still unknown who will draw up the list of products that would qualify for the lower VAT, but the European Commission has already backed the idea and will introduce it in its VAT overhaul next year.
It all adds up to a heavy agenda of environmental leadership that polishes the EU's image.
DREAMS VS. REALITY
Except that in reality, the landscape is not so green.
For example, European states have had serious problems meeting the decade-old targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, which would reduce the EU's greenhouse gas emissions by a collective 8 percent by 2012. It is understood that about one-third of EU states will not meet the targets, including otherwise eco-proactive France. Still, member states advocate more emissions reductions and new commitments to renewable resources.
And then there is the ambitious European Parliament, which wants to ban the use of pesticides -- including those used on football pitches.
Even ministers who support more stringent environmental goals express skepticism that the targets can be met. "None of us is confident that we can make it," said one government representative from the Netherlands after having left the negotiating table during an EU meeting in March. He was very open about what happens if member states fail to meet their goals: nothing happens.
The remarks were a relief to diplomats from candidate states like Croatia or Turkey. They, too, have to follow the EU's eco-policy, which is a huge financial burden for them. Also happy were new member states. They have either eco-skeptical governments, like the Czech Republic, despite the Green Party in the ruling coalition, or they advocate a "diversified approach." If, for example, the Baltics say, look, we have dramatically reduced our emissions along the lines of the Kyoto goals (even if largely because Soviet-era heavy industry has withered away), so we shouldn't be pressed to do much under the "20 in 2020" target.
This is symptomatic of EU politics. Instead of concentrating on what can reasonably be achieved, and enforcing it without exemptions, EU policymakers go right for the Olympic gold. Past targets gone with the wind? Never mind -- we have grand new ones! Kyoto fading away as a failure? Let's commit to a 20 percent reduction by 2020!
There's an old adage that if you want to kill an initiative, set up a committee and produce a report. The EU sometimes behaves as if it can change the future simply by having a committee put a name and date to it. A masterpiece of this was the so-called Lisbon agenda, once a plan how to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world by 2010 and now little more than a laughingstock that policy makers in Brussels would rather forget.
It is the same story for the "green agenda." With ambitions in this field on the international level and hoping to please the eco-friendly public, the EU is setting up more and more new targets, irrespective of cost and the current record on commitment versus achievement.
This is not very clever environmental politics and in the end it undermines the EU's credibility as a global leader. If we can't achieve what we promise and only pile on more and more ambitious promises, nobody will take the green initiatives seriously.
There's an old Czech proverb, "The way to hell is paved with good deeds." This could easily apply to Brussels' environmental agenda.