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Interview Details

Interview with Staffan Nilsson

  • President, European Economic and Social Committee
  • Dated: Thursday, November 17th 2011

  • EWP: Could you summarize in a few words how the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) addressed water policy so far?

    Staffan Nilsson: Water is a key element of my work programme "Engaging people for a sustainable Europe" and is linked to both the themes of sustainability and growth, and solidarity and development. The EESC will actively continue its efforts to tackle this topic of vital concern at local, European and global level.

    As underlined in a recent exploratory opinion at the request of the Hungarian Presidency (NAT/495 Integration of water policy into other EU policies), the EESC advocates a consolidated and crosscutting approach. Water management should be given central importance through all other EU policies.

    The EESC certainly considers it to be an issue of strategic importance, and not only as an environmental issue but also as a key element of sustainable economic growth in Europe. Water is a vital resource for all human beings and for many economic sectors, including but certainly not limited to agriculture and the agri-food industry.

    EWP: Water is a cross-cutting issue. What are the EESC’s views on the integration of water policy into EU policy areas? What are main opportunities and challenges in order to integrate water policy on EU level?

    Staffan Nilsson: The concept of integration is not new in environment policy. The Treaty itself requires the integration of environmental requirements into all EU policies, with a view to achieving sustainable development. If we want to achieve the objectives of the EU 2020 Strategy, in particular on Resource Efficiency, integration is the biggest challenge for environment policy, and this is particularly true for water policy.

    Firstly, agriculture. This sector is a major user of water (up to 80% of total consumption in some parts of Europe) and also a major source of water pollution especially from pesticides and fertilisers.

    While we have made progress in greening the CAP in the past, we have the possibility to make an important leap with the upcoming CAP reform for 2013. We need to increase the quantity of support for environmental and water measures, to pay farmers for supporting Green Infrastructure and water quality, while making funds conditional on effective management of water resources through environmental cross-compliance and agri-environmental measures.

    In this context, I would like to recall the close connection between Soil protection and water quality. Soil and vegetation, which act as a rainfall buffer, are of fundamental importance for the state of water ecosystems. To this end, we need to focus on the most serious problems and threats to soil, especially land use changes, soil sealing and pollution - which directly affect hydrological cycles, the state of water ecosystems, and surface and groundwater quality. The Committee is strongly in favour of adopting the previously proposed Soil Directive. Likewise, I would like to point to the revision of the Sewage Sludge Directive. The EESC has repeatedly called for the introduction of minimum requirements for soil protection in using sewage sludge in agriculture.

    Second, structural and cohesion funds: In many cases, these funds are devoted to heavy infrastructures that do not deliver all the benefits for the economy and the environment that could be achieved by investing in Green Infrastructure. The EESC emphasises that national subsidies and funds could be allocated and/or increased to include support aimed at preserving regional public community interests, such as wetland rehabilitation and biodiversity conservation, particularly when looking at the reform of EU state aid rules on services of general economic interest.

    The third and very important area for integration concerns Climate Change and the adaptation to climate change. Water resources are highly vulnerable to climate change, with far-reaching consequences for natural ecosystems, freshwater and food availability, human health, energy and infrastructures. We must address these challenges through integrated water policies taking account of the demand and supply sides, and carefully designed mitigation and adaptation measures. At the same time, we have to ensure that climate change mitigation measures, such as bio-energy crops or hydro-energy production do not exacerbate pressures on water resources.

    Disaster prevention/droughts/flooding: The EU now needs to develop new early warning measures to respond to natural or anthropogenic disasters that endanger and damage water resources in the short term. I would like to emphasize the importance of including disasters caused by cumulative effects or consequences of long-term situations. Disasters of this type, such as droughts or heat waves, are the outcome of environmental trends for which EU Member States are jointly responsible. It is also timely for effective flood prevention policies to be put in place.

    Fourthly, transport policy. Also in this case, an apparent pro-environment development, such as the shift to inland water navigation from more CO2 intensive transport modes, needs support. Rivers are not motorways and they support a host of ecosystem services which are essential for drinking water abstraction, flood prevention, agriculture, tourism, recreation, etc. Therefore, a strategic approach to inland water navigation is needed that takes into account the future development scenarios of all economic activities along the major EU rivers.

    EWP: From your point of view, what do you expect of cross-border cooperation concerning water issues?

    Staffan Nilsson: The international dimension of water policy is of course important. The EU has international rivers crossing its territory, which requires international cross-border cooperation to achieve adequate protection of water quality. Also, water availability is a major global concern. Low-income countries and regions are especially vulnerable and have fewer options for adapting to climate change and water shortages. The EESC calls on the EU to take an active stand in the global fight against poverty, by using its external policies, in particular trade and development, to contribute to an effective management of water in developing countries.

    EWP: In your opinion, how could civil society organizations and EU citizens contribute to water policy?

    Staffan Nilsson: The EESC strongly supports the involvement of civil society in all stages of water policy development and implementation. Water managers and policymakers should employ citizens, stakeholders and scientists in order to draw on their knowledge, give due consideration to potential economic, social, and environmental aspects, and develop policies which are supported by stakeholders.

    Given its constitutional role, the Committee further tries to stimulate the debate through ongoing exchange of experiences and good practices between regional/local actors and organised civil society. We have to share our knowledge and experiences aimed at:

    · a better service to our citizens,

    · a better management of the resource, and

    · a better protection of our environment.

    EWP: Next year the European Commission will present the Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Water. In which way do you picture further procedures in improving EU water policy?

    Staffan Nilsson: With our recent exploratory opinion NAT/495 - Integration of water policy into other EU policies the Committee has sought to make an active contribution to the ongoing debate on improving EU water policy, leading up to 2012 which will be the European Year of Water, which will see the launch of the Commission Blueprint to Safeguard Europe's Water, a major review of the EU water policies.

    I would like to raise awareness of the social aspects of water policy. Unfortunately, there are numerous homeless or poorly-housed Europeans who still have no free access to running and/or drinking water, the EESC links the challenges associated with water management to the fight against poverty and the goal of eradicating it. In order to secure the fundamental right of adequate water supplies for all citizens, it is important for Member States to stay vigilant and to improve transparency requirements in the delegation of public services of general interest, both in the legal as well as the economic sphere; this includes important issues such as: public ownership, pricing, reinvestment and maintenance of works and infrastructure.

    EWP: Thank you for the interview.

  • Staffan Nilsson
  • President, European Economic and Social Committee
  • Staffan Nilsson is President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), the EU's only non-political advisory body. Based in Brussels, it enables civil society organizations across Europe to take part in the EU policy- and decision-making process. “Engaging people for a sustainable Europe” is Staffan Nilsson's political message for his term of office. Since 1995, when he became a member of the EESC, he has actively brought his expertise to bear on the work of the EESC, mainly in the fields of agriculture, sustainable development and international cooperation. Mr. Nilsson coordinated the EESC's work on the Lisbon Strategy and later on the Europe 2020 strategy. He has been a farmer in northern Sweden for more than thirty years now and a long-standing leader in the Swedish Farmers' Federation (LRF) and in other associations in the field of education and culture, development and aid. He is a graduate of the University of Gothenburg, in Nordic Languages and History of Literature.
"Water management should be given central importance through all other EU policies."

- Staffan Nilsson
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