PositionBrief Article

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=94m, 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 for the pan-European Conference...

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