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Europe Misses Its Chance For Leading Role in Rio

EC environment minister worries summit will produce only rhetoric

THE European Community is poised to arrive at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro like the lion that squeaked.

Unable to agree to the showcase measures that were intended to set them apart at the largest-ever global conference, the 12 EC members are now falling back on individual national strategies. In the process, they risk faring little better at Rio than the United States, whose deficiencies and lack of fresh commitments in the environment and development fields the Community has been spotlighting for several months.

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"Those who were expecting something more from the EC got instead a divided Commission [EC executive], environment ministers unable to decide anything, and member states going off in their own directions," says Yves Cochet, a former Green member of the European Parliament and part of the French Greens party's Rio delegation. "On the issues at Rio, just as with others such as Yugoslavia, there is an absence of political unity and common positions."

It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. Since he began preparing for the Rio summit last year, EC Environment Commissioner Carlo Ripa di Meana has been putting his energies behind a strategy to allow Western Europe to assume the mantle of responsible industrial nations.

The strategy stood on two central pillars: tough, binding measures to stabilize the EC's "greenhouse" emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000; and a pledge to nearly double aid to developing countries by 2000, to 0.7 percent of gross national product.

With those two commitments, the Community would shine compared to other wealthy nations - the US and Japan especially - and could justifiably claim the "international leadership" in the environment and development fields Mr. Ripa di Meana so coveted.

Yet last week ministers from the 12 EC countries failed to adopt a carbon tax necessary to put teeth in the Community's commitment to lower carbon dioxide emissions. The incremental tax would add about $10 to the cost of a barrel of oil by the end of the decade.

At the same time, the ministers failed to adopt a timetable for increasing development aid.

In protest, Ripa di Meana will not travel to the Rio Summit, leaving the EC without its chief environmental representative.

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On the carbon tax, a handful of EC countries, including Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, objected to the Commission making its implementation contingent on adoption of a similar tax by Japan and the US.

The question of development aid faced opposition from the EC's poorer members - as well as from its largest and richest, Germany.

The German government, which earmarks 0.42 percent of GNP for aid (compared to 0.79 percent for France, 0.32 for Japan and 0.15 for the US) says the high cost of reuniting with eastern Germany prohibits it from making a commitment to the 0.7 percent level.

German officials say they are disappointed that the summit's convention on climate change includes no timeframe for greenhouse gas reductions. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has criticized the US for its unwillingness to accept the commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2000.

The EC countries last week agreed to sign the climate change convention, despite strong misgivings about the absence of a specific timetable.

However, the summit's biodiversity convention, designed to protect the world's species, won't benefit from a similar European accord. Germany says it will sign the convention, placing it in the same "first step" and "better than nothing" context in which it sees the entire Rio exercise. France, on the other hand, has decided not to sign, calling the document too weak.

In announcing his decision not to go to Rio, Ripa di Meana said he was protesting a conference for which everything was pre-negotiated, "where there will be only beautiful words about the environment but no action," as an aide says. But his decision is most directly a stab at the Community and its inability to take the lead in an area of growing global importance.

"It was his dream that this was the occasion for the Community to fill a leadership role that is there waiting and needing to be filled," says a spokesman for the commissioner. With the EC's failure to adopt the measures he sought, Ripa di Meana has been less bold recently about openly criticizing the US position on what Rio should accomplish. Yet it is clear he holds the US chiefly responsible for what he claims will now be little more than a rhetorical exercise.

Other Europeans are equally disappointed that this "opportunity for Europe" has been missed, Mr. Cochet says.

"For some time the Americans have been the world leaders in many areas, from the world economy to political and military problems," he says, "but this [environment and development] was a domain where they were behind and where Europe had a chance to move out front. Unfortunately, it's now lost."

Aides to Ripa di Meana say he will continue to push the EC to adopt a carbon tax swiftly, and will try to use the fact that it is now conditioned on similar action by the US and Japan as pressure for widespread Western action.

"He's not a quitter," an aide says. "He's already working on a strategy for after Rio." One idea is to build on the conventions adopted in Rio with protocols containing the kinds of commitments now largely absent.

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