European Union Environmental Policy at 40-something

European Union Environmental Policy at 40-something

Co-authored by Henrik Selin, Associate Professor, International Relations, Boston University.

Europe is undergoing significant economic and social transitions, causing major political disagreement over public finances and currency weakness. Some politicians argue that “at a time when disquieting monetary or trade problems” oblige a search for lasting solutions, “the time has come for Europe to realize the unity behind her interests, the scope of her capabilities and the importance of her obligations.” While some cling to narrow national interests others push for further pooled authority and increased federalism as the only viable way forward. In the midst of all this, governments seek to protect the environment and formulate an energy policy that “ensures a reliable and lasting supply.”

Welcome to Europe — in 1972. The quotes above are contained in the official declaration of the first summit conference of the heads of state or government of the member states of the European Economic Community, in October 1972. In the wake of a recent expansion in membership from six to nine countries, this meeting marked the birth of EU’s environmental policy. Leaders from across the ideological spectrum — including France’s Georges Pompidou (Gaullist), West Germany’s Willy Brandt (Social Democrat), and the U.K.’s Edward Heath (Conservative) — launched the political processes that yielded both a massive expansion of European environmental health and safety regulation, and the acceleration of European political and economic integration and expansion.

42 years later, it is not clear if contemporary European leaders are similarly up to the task of steering a course through regional economic and political turmoil and waning global influence. Over the past four decades, pan-European environmental policies have gone from weak attempts to set broad goals and rather unambitious standards to the single most stringent and influential body of environmental policies on earth. In many ways, the formulation of an ambitious body of environmental law and regulation is among the clearest EU successes. Yet, as environmental policy matures, it is uncertain whether the formerly young environmental wunderkind can sustain its run of success.

The remarkable achievements of EU environmental policymaking include the development of a huge body of environmental law on every significant environmental challenge, from air and water pollution, to chemicals management, waste reduction and disposal, recycling, greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy development, food safety, consumer protection and product standards, and habitats and nature protection. Yet, the EU’s signature policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Emissions Trading Scheme, is limping along with bargain basement prices and corruption scandals, the victim of a the repeatedly demonstrated inability of Europe’s political leaders to figure out how to fix its patently obvious problems. Sound familiar?

Over the last 10-15 years, EU environmental policy is unrivaled in its global influence. When environmental advocates — whether in U.S. environmental organizations, Asian government ministries, or academia — want to assess state-of-the-art environmental policies to tackle a particular regulatory problem, they usually turn to Brussels. Though the results of global environmental cooperation are often underwhelming, it is hard to see how anything could be accomplished in global fora without EU participation and sponsorship.

The seemingly endless European economic/governance crisis is casting a long shadow over contemporary European cooperation of all kinds, leaving many asking if this is the beginning of the end for the EU. Even if reports of the EU’s death are wildly exaggerated, as seems likely, European leaders desperately need to regain optimism and faith in the European project across the continent. Just as in 1972, part of the answer lies in environmental policy. In the 1970s and 1980s, environmental policy was used to advance economic and political integration and harmonize standards and regulations. These developments, in turn, leveraged changes in the treaties that detail how the EU functions and to what it aspires.

This line of thinking is not new. Functionalist theories of integration stress the importance of day-to-day operations for slowly solidifying and deepening cooperation over time. For Jean Monnet and other architects of European integration after World War II, mundane tasks were essential to build trust and advance political agendas. Very few people get excited about technical issues of developing standards for harmonizing risk assessments of hazardous substances. But polling suggests that environmental and consumer standards rank among the most popular of EU activities across the member states.

Environmental policy is an important indicator for the strength of broader processes of European integration. Many environmental issues are transnational. Their management intersects with the functioning of the common market and the fulfillment of core economic and social goals. As more environmental policy-making authority has been transferred from the member states to the EU level, environmental policy expanded to become one of the largest areas of EU law. Currently, most new European environmental policy — and reforms of existing ones — is formulated at the EU level, not in national capitals.

While many will scream at the notion of making more environmental policy in economically challenging times, EU policies have already passed this test. Beyond being a vehicle for greater regional integration, they can also enhance global competitiveness. The EU has set many of the world’s highest product standards — for example, for energy efficiency, recyclability, toxics reductions and product safety. By leveraging the fact that the EU is the largest single consumer market on earth, these high standards often become the de facto global standards.

A major strength of EU environmental policy-making over the past 40 years has been the ability to formulate common positions across divergent national interests and differences in political ideology. Yet, significant challenges remain. A recent State of the European Environment report published by the European Environment Agency concludes that the record of EU environmental policy is mixed beyond the successes seen in air and water pollution reduction. Unsustainable development of key economic sectors is a major barrier to further improvements. The source of many European environmental problems has changed from production-related challenges to consumption patterns. European consumption substantially exceeds regional natural resource production. Europe is highly dependent on others for nearly all of its basic resource demands — and a lot of wealth flows out of the EU as those imports flow in. It is precisely this resource dependence that suggests that Europe should lead the world toward much needed resource efficiency revolutions.

The European environmental agenda is inextricably tied to efforts to change this pattern. Shifts in consumption behavior are needed, as are substantial improvements in resource efficiency in nearly every economic sector. Furthermore, much better integration of environmental and economic objectives is required across major policy areas, including energy, transportation, agriculture, industrial production, the service sector, and land-use and urban planning. Addressing interrelated environment and economics issues offers opportunities both to save the environmental agenda from a painful mid-life crisis and to tackle economic problems. This requires rediscovering common purpose and reducing nationalist finger pointing.

A sustainable Europe would be one living within both ecological and economic limits where political institutions engender sustainable development. Currently, too many member states exceed both types of such limits, externalizing the costs on others. Recognizing common responsibilities and shared interests is the path toward regaining stability and development. Learn from history. European leaders can use the environmental agenda to help rebuild regional unity and the EU’s global influence. Together, Europe’s environmental policies and its economy can be fabulous after 40.

This piece originally appeared in "the State of the Transatlantic World."