The European Commission claims to be well aware of this "democratic =deficit" and this is why it wanted to use its White Paper on Governance =as a springboard to launch an open debate with civil society on the =prospects for improving grass-root participation in the decision-making =process. The December 3-4 conference staged by DG Environment was just =one event in this public consultation, which is due to run until March =2002. Even before it published its White Paper, the Commission - and in =particular DG Environment - had been organising public hearings, which =provided valuable input for the White Paper. This is largely why DG =Environment wanted to follow up its earlier efforts and discuss with =these key stakeholders the White Paper itself and its implications for =environmental policy.Even though NGOs and industry were widely represented at the conference, =DG Environment clearly had the accent on local and regional authorities: =the appeal has not fallen on deaf ears and the regions and local =authorities are showing a genuine interest in being more directly =involved and consulted in the decision-making process. They are calling =loudly and clearly for more information, wider participation, more =openness and a regular and well-structured dialogue. For instance, they =would like an annual policy dialogue between relevant Commissioners and =senior elected representatives of local and regional government, to =discuss the overall European policy agenda.Initiatives of this kind are particularly well suited to the environment =sector where a large part of the implementation of decisions lies in the =hands of local authorities. As Jean-Fran=87ois Vertsrynge, acting =Director in DG Environment, points out, his Directorate, headed up by =Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstr"m, is particularly active in =this process and is planning a series of measures over the next few =months. The work programme for 2002 that is currently being drafted is =already known to include initiatives of this sort.The same goes for transposition, ratification and implementation of the =Aarhus Convention (for the first two pillars, the right to information =and public participation, proposals have already been tabled and are =still under discussion in the various institutions, while for the third =pillar, access to justice, the Commission is planning to table a =proposal some time next year). The EU's target is even to get this =convention ratified in time...

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