Environmental Europe: A Success Story?

Jonas Schoenefeld, Viviane Gravey |

Forty years on, the EU environmental policy is a much-publicised success of European integration[1]. After a slow start in the 1970s to tackle trans-boundary environmental issues and level the playing field for European businesses, EU environmental policies now cover water, air or noise pollution; habitat and biodiversity preservation; sustainable production and consumption and the fight against climate change. This afterthought of European integration – the environment wasn’t even mentioned in the EU’s founding Rome Treaty in 1951 – has now become central to the EU’s public image: not only are European environmental actions popular with Europeans but they also fuel the EU’s standing in international affairs.

In this blog, we will investigate some of the tensions underlying that apparent success story. For some, EU environmental policies have overstepped their remit, and have gone too far, too quickly – breaking free from proportionality, subsidiarity, even democracy. It is conventionally assumed that Brussels creates 80% of EU environmental legislation – too much for David Cameron[2], who campaigns for a rollback of EU environmental legislation in his bid for EU reform.  The impact of EU environmental policies on competitiveness is especially debated – while some, such as Environmental Commissioner Janez Potočnik stress how ambitious environmental policies today will foster economic development tomorrow, many others feel that these policies sacrifice short term economic growth in a time where it is most needed[3].

Overall, policy expansion at EU level – the continuous increase in strength and number of environmental policies – appears to be stalling. Fears of a negative impact of environmental policies on growth put pressure on a number of environmental policies, including those on climate change. Since the early 1990s, the EU has gone through multiple processes of policy review, following calls for Better Regulation, Smart Regulation, and the reduction of administrative burdens. In some cases, such as the recent 2013 Common Agricultural Policy reform, this means that some environmental policies have even been dismantled[4].

A key influence on the waxing and waning of EU environmental policies is of course how these policies are made. EU environmental policy makers experience many classic tensions of EU governance. For instance, these include what role science and experts should play in policy-making, the influence of lobbyists, civil society or citizens. In addition, many debates focus on ‘subsidiarity’—in other words, what role national, regional and local governments should play in EU environmental policy. This is especially because EU environmental policies sometimes fail to ‘come true’, creating an ‘implementation gap’. Recent reports from the European Environmental Agency highlight how in sectors such as agricultural pollution[5] and destruction of farmland biodiversity[6], EU policies have managed, at best, to stall negative impacts – it has yet to reverse them. We’ll investigate these tensions with posts on expertise in environmental policy-making, but also the roles played by governments at different levels, civil society, bureaucrats and others.

Finally, no outlook on European environmental policy would be complete if we focused on Brussels only. We will endeavour to bring together perspectives on EU environmental policies from different Member States – including Germany, France and the UK – in order to relate national debates to the European context. As environmental and climate policy scholars, we plan to analyse how the EU bridges the tensions between providing aspiring leadership and delivering credible policy results, as well as between technocratic governance and democracy. Without doubt, the EU has enormous potential to take leadership on environmental issues—but jubilant rhetoric needs to be accompanied by a sober look at policy-making realities. In our blog we seek to contribute to that objective. We hope that our blog will become a platform for discussion, and we will regularly invite guest bloggers to contribute their perspectives to this project.