John Hontelez is chief advocacy officer of Forest Stewardship Council. Between 1996 and 2011 he was secretary-general of the European Environmental Bureau, before which he had been chair of Friends of the Earth International for a decade. He is co-founder of Milieukontakt International, a Dutch organisation that has given practical support to environmental organisations in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) since 1987. Hontelez is a Dutch citizen who was already active at secondary school (1970) in local and national environmental and anti-nuclear organisations. He currently lives in Brussels.
You were chair of Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) from 1986 to 1996. What was it like to be involved back then in the process of engaging NGOs in the pan-European movement, especially regarding discussions on EU membership for CEE countries?
In 1986, FoEI had one member from CEE, Polski Klub Ekologiczny (PKE). They had what we called a provisional membership, and the Executive Committee asked me to find out more about this organisation because it was the first one from Eastern Europe. So I went to Krakow in 1987 to attend PKE’s third General Assembly. Launched in 1980, PKE had come up together with Solidarnosc and somehow managed to remain a legal entity throughout the 1980s in Poland. In 1981 there was a military coup led by General Jaruzelski, during which Solidarnosc was banned, but PKE had a very clever strategy for remaining legal and yet independent. I was really impressed by my visit to Krakow and I thought this organisation would be an asset to FoEI. An anti-nuclear campaign had been launched by PKE because Chernobyl had just happened, so I started organising exchanges between Dutch and Polish NGOs. Very soon afterwards this led to the setting up of Milieukontakt Netherlands–Poland, which after one year became Milieukontakt Eastern Europe. Now it’s called Milieukontakt International.
Milieukontakt became the main vehicle for me to get engaged with organisations in Eastern Europe. In 1987 I went to Hungary to understand better how Hungarian NGOs were working, and we started to work with that country as well, and we added East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Milieukontakt soon became an organisation that was active all over — also in initially more complex countries like Romania.
Very quickly, between 1987 and 1991, a lot of groups became members of FoEI. Ecoglasnost from Bulgaria. There was also the green movement in Estonia, which was half in politics and half not. There was the National Society of Nature Conservationists in Hungary, Hnuti Duha in the Czech Republic, SZOPK in the Slovak part, VAKS in Latvia, and Zelenyi Svit in Ukraine. Through FoEI we became more and more acquainted with political issues, and this was quite exciting because FoEI also has a very strong membership in Latin America, where the organisations tend to be rather leftist and anti-capitalist, so we had some very interesting clashes, especially between people from Eastern Europe who were so surprised that, in their view, the Latin Americans wanted to go towards the system that the Europeans were only too happy to leave and which they saw as a complete failure.
As for discussions on EU membership, in 1989 Friends of the Earth organised what was called the Pan-European Environmental Meeting in Naples, which proved a real game changer. There was impressive participation from NGOs — a lot of people from the Soviet Union and from Eastern Europe. On the first day of the conference, the Berlin Wall fell. And on the second day, Zhivkov, the political leader in Bulgaria, resigned. So you can imagine that our normal programme didn’t go according to plan. We just had our plenary discussions about what all this meant for Europe.
Which events over the years most influenced the trajectory of Europe’s environmental policy?
The period of accession negotiations was very interesting because the initial optimism in the new democracies had disappeared and there was some chaos and scepticism. At some point the environmental agenda became, in the view of many politicians and media people, something imposed by the European Union. So it was very important during that difficult period to keep the environmental movement well informed and motivated.
In Western Europe at the time there was also some concern that as soon as accession countries joined the EU everything would freeze because the new member states didn’t want new legislation. This created a kind of urgency in Western Europe, but it had some good results. I was always very much fighting against the idea that Eastern European countries would just be a barrier to further innovation. Also because what I learned in Eastern Europe is that you can’t just group the countries together, as they so often were during the Cold War period under Soviet domination. They wanted to be considered as individual countries. When accession happened in 2004 it did turn out that the new member states were, by and large, less enthusiastic about leading a charge in the EU for innovative and ambitious environmental policies. Of course, taking on 12 countries — 10 in 2004, two in 2007 — is a big challenge in any sense — plus many of them had gone through a major industrial crisis, were poorer anyway, and employment and growth had become the key priorities.
A couple of other things happened in the meantime. First of all there was Kyoto, which in Europe has been a real success. The other thing was the implosion of the old economies themselves. This was a terrible thing at the time, as it created a lot of unemployment and poverty, while undermining former social structures like schooling, education and pensions. Then, after that, you got the new industries that were basically run by Western companies. There were attempts by the European Commission to make voluntary agreements with those companies to apply the same technologies and environmental standards that they used in Western countries. The EC couldn’t oblige them to do this in EU non-member states, so this didn’t really work, but at least some of the bigger companies were doing that anyway. In any case, the westernisation of industry in those countries brought some environmental benefits.
What are some of the greatest challenges that CEE countries have had to overcome in recent years?
Going back to what I said earlier, you can’t just lump all of the countries together. They are different, and they have different histories. Also, civil society has developed differently. I haven’t been following the region as closely as I once did, and I have to be careful about making sweeping statements — but I am concerned about the way that democracy is “developing” in some of those countries. In 1989, starting with the conference in Naples and later, I often had this kind of discussion with activists in Eastern Europe: “What is the determining difference between East and West?” And many of them thought that the key difference was capitalism versus communism as a determining system, that communism was leading to a wasteful society, and that capitalism and market forces were more geared towards efficiency and innovation. And I always disagreed with that. For me, the determining difference was democracy and freedom of speech and organisation versus repression. That’s why I found the Aarhus Convention was so important.
I’m really concerned that in some Eastern countries these kinds of things are at risk. I have always emphasised the essential importance of building up domestic support, of developing a constituency in your own country, and of building membership organisations. It has been a notable weakness in many countries in Eastern Europe that you don’t have large membership organisations or a strong network of volunteers. For me, Hungary has always been the most positive example, and people in Hungary gradually started to organise themselves before all this external support came through. The Danube Circle, the National Society of Nature Conservationists. The Hungarian NGOs started, in 1990 I believe and with Milieukontakt support in the first years, an annual national gathering of Hungarian NGOs — originally mainly to try to overcome their differences, rooted in the past. But gradually they focused on how to work together and how to organise representation. The Hungarian movement has always been for me the best example of how it should be. The situation in Hungary is not easy today, and I’m not following the NGOs as I was, but it remains an example to follow: only a strong and united movement can make a real difference.