Throughout the early days of the European Union, while under the guise of the European Economic Community, there was very little focus on environmental issues, with economic cooperation the main order of the day. After the UN’s ‘Conference on the Human Environment’ in Stockholm in 1972, this began to change – but it was in fact still due to economic reasons.
Some ECC member states, in response to the Stockholm Conference, began bringing in environmental legislation of their own. This was a concern for the ECC, as it meant that businesses and industries in some member states could be subject to new environment-protection legal costs, but not others – which had the potential to distort trade. Hence, it became important that all of the members of the European community adopt a uniform standard of environmental policy – not out of concern for the planet, but as responsible economic actors.
The Committee on the Environment
There were some more idealistic moves toward environmental policy however, as the member states began to become of the opinion that the ECC should be about more than just economic matters. The European Parliament founded the Committee of the Environment, which has grown to today (perhaps due to growing concern about Climate Change and so forth) be one of the most influential Committees in the Parliament.
However, at this stage there was no real legal basis in the ECC treaty for environmental policy, and it was only due to the support of the European Court of Justice that environmental legislation maintained legality. This changed in 1987, with the Single European Act, the first real step forward in European legislation since the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Although most famous for resolving to establish a common market within five years, the SEA also included ‘Title VII (Environment)’, which for the first time underlined ‘management of the environment’ as a stated goal of the EC.
The European Environmental Agency
Come Maastricht and the formal formation of the European Union, the environment was becoming a key issue for the European communities, who had accepted sustainable development as a central goal. A succession of Environmental Action Programmes were established, which moved policy forward from solely focussing on pollution and protecting human health to a wider stance, looking to protect wildlife and habitats. Due to the need for a multilateral response to environmental issues, the EU began to take a more and more important role in this field.
The establishment in 1994 of the European Environmental Agency was a key development in European environmental policy, as it looked to monitor the environment not just within the member states, but across Europe as a whole.
Acting on Behalf of the Member States
Acting on a more international stage (as is really necessitated with environmental concerns such as climate change) had however always proved more difficult for the EU, as the member states tend to be very guarded about surrendering control of their foreign policy. It was only in 1971 that the European Court of Justice ruled that members could not enter into agreements which ran against those held by the EU as a whole, and up until the 1990s it was not unusual for the member states to have to meet and reach a consensus, signing up to an act or treaty before the EU could.
However, in 1990, at a meeting of the European Council in Dublin, the Council expressed that the EU should promote measures on environmental issues both on a regional and international level on behalf of the member states. As a result, the EU attended the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the Kyoto Summit in 1997 as a sole body representing all of the member states, and was treated in effect as an individual state. The EU took a leadership role in the push for Sustainable Development, and was one of the leading participants in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.
Problems with EU Policy-Making
The system is by no means ideal – whether progress is made on environmental matters can be reliant on which member state holds the Commission Presidency, as their enthusiasm for environmentalism can vary. Additionally, progress can at times fall victim to the internal competition between the various Directorate Generals within the EU Commission – so while the Environment and Development Directorates may push environmental policies forward, the Trade Directorate General (which arguably has more influence with the Commission) pushes more for a pro-business stance.
However, there is no denying the progress that the EU has made – it has brought in environmental legislation bringing the member states into line on everything from air quality and pesticide use to waste management and habitat protection, and could legitimately claim to be leading the world on Climate Change. Whatever the future of the environmentalist movement holds, the EU is sure to play a significant role in it.