What will we do without Carlo?: Politicians may welcome his departure, but David Nicholson-Lord says our environment needed Carlo Ripa di Meana's protection

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The Independent Online
Italy's gain will be Europe's - and Britain's - loss, although the departure of Carlo Ripa di Meana from the post of European Community Environment Commissioner to become Italy's Environment Minister will no doubt be greeted with relief in Whitehall and Westminster. He is the antithesis of many of the things that Britain stands for, as well as being an outspoken critic - and prosecutor - of the British government's environmental performance.

From an environmental perspective, however - one that views the destruction of the biosphere as of more importance than the arcana of Maastricht - the passing of Brussels' Jolly Green Giant is deeply to be mourned.

Perhaps the most cautionary feature of Mr Ripa di Meana's career is how a Brussels bureaucrat could assume, in parts of Britain at least, the status of folk hero. The explanation is partly personal: he was no run-of-the-mill mandarin. But it is also, more significantly, political, reflecting many people's changed perceptions of London and Brussels, of national government and EC Commission. The new awareness favours Brussels rather than London and, unlike Mr Ripa di Meana, it will not go away.

Mr Ripa di Meana's good fortune was to become the EC's environment commissioner in 1989, when the green tide was near its height. Within months of taking over, he was challenging the British government's water privatisation plans - later he was to announce EC prosecutions of Britain over water quality - gingering the EC into action over the ozone layer and car exhausts, and canvassing a carbon tax on the use of the fossil fuels, such as oil and petrol, that cause global warming.

It was a remarkable start for a man who had spent his previous four years in Brussels as a cultural affairs commissioner known primarily for his affability and his sexually athletic wife. Mr Ripa di Meana was born into a family of Ligurian aristocrats, became a Communist at 20, worked in journalism and publishing and finally, having renounced Communism after the 1956 Hungarian rising, entering politics as a Socialist. In 1982 he married Marina Punturieri, whose sexually explicit memoirs made her a household name in Italy.

Some sense of Mr Ripa di Meana's interests can be gauged by her claim that he was introduced as 'il orgasmo da Rotterdam' and that Bettino Craxi, the Socialist leader, was best man at their wedding and Alberto Moravia, the novelist, a witness. Here, then, was no eco-fundamentalist but a cultured patrician, with a flair for publicity and a taste for the idiosyncratic.

It is a measure of the seriousness, and political intractability, of the Earth's environmental problems that such an ebullient character could be transformed within four years to the gloomy figure who described last month's Earth Summit as a 'funeral wake'. Mr Ripa di Meana refused to go to Rio, having seen his plans for a carbon tax founder on European weakness and American intransigence. What should have been the Magna Charta of the Earth, he argued, had become a bundle of truisms which 'deluded expectations and eludes responsibility'.

With six months of his four-year term to go, Mr Ripa di Meana had become deeply disillusioned with the politicians of the West, notably the US President, George Bush. In that sense, his move is an appendix to a failed Earth Summit and thus the ending of a brief but hopeful - perhaps too hopeful - chapter in history.

But it was also an object lesson in the use of leadership to further a cause which is in danger of perishing for lack of it. For two decades before Mr Ripa di Meana, the bureaucrats of Brussels had been producing a steady flow of directives which recognised not only that air and water cross national boundaries but that if harmonisation, and thus the internal market, was to have any substance at all, environmental rules must apply uniformly across Europe.

There must, in other words, be a 'level playing field' to prevent, for example, dirty factories benefiting at the expense of clean ones. Such efforts were largely misunderstood and thus lampooned: it was easy to score political points at the expense of a distant and 'interfering' Eurocracy.

Mr Ripa di Meana changed much of that, and British Conservative politicians did not thank him for it. He leaked, he spoke out, he was impolitic. Under his commissionership, Britain, not without reason, became known as the 'dirty man of Europe', coerced, for the sake of its reputation (and by foreigners, for heaven's sake), into cleaning up the North Sea.

Mr Ripa di Meana also took the EC directives seriously, something which the national leaders who signed them appeared disinclined to do. Hence his actions over British bathing and drinking water, hence also the challenge to Britain over destructive road schemes such as those at Twyford Down near Winchester and Oxleas Wood in south-east London. The schemes, according to EC directives accepted by the UK, should have been subject to an environmental impact assessment, said Mr Ripa di Meana. The British government disagreed.

It would be hard to find a landscape in Britain with a higher conservation and heritage status than Twyford Down. Yet the Department of Transport has sent the bulldozers in - an act, under EC law, potentially illegal. How do you stop a national government acting like a dictator? You appeal to Europe. For this awareness we have to thank not only the bad environmental habits of recent British governments but Mr Ripa di Meana's high-profile stance.

In supplying leadership on environmental issues which our own politicians have so dismally failed to provide, he has also permanently changed our perceptions of Europe. It is part of his achievement that we now view appeals to 'national sovereignty' with a much more jaundiced eye, noting both the genuine fears they express and also the inadequate political vision, the self-seeking and the odour of petty tyranny.

(Photograph omitted)