Exploring the Impacts of Austerity on Environmental Policy

Paul Tobin, Viviane Gravey |

Following the financial crisis of 2007/2008 and initial attempts to stimulate the economy through increased government spending, austerity has become a dominant narrative in many developed nations. Government spending has been significantly reduced in a number of European countries, as part of efforts to reduce both public deficits and debts. After several years of such austerity measures, what has been the impact of this policy approach on the environment.

In the short-term, the financial crisis has resulted in a reduction in the production of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the development of austerity policies which tend to favour the economy at the cost of the environment, combined with a reduction in the ambition of policies designed to protect the environment, are likely to result in significant environmental damage over the medium-to-long-term. Attempts to understand the impacts of austerity on the environment have barely scratched the surface so far. Vital questions remain unanswered: What measures are most useful for measuring the existence of austerity? How has austerity altered environmental policy? Have the environmental policy approaches of different European states differed in response to austerity? A forthcoming panel at the UACES (University Association for Contemporary European Studies) Annual Conference seeks preliminary answers to these very questions.

Taking place on the 7th of September 2015 and hosted in the stunning city of Bilbao, Spain, this panel will develop conceptual debates and examine recent empirical studies on European cases to assess the lasting legacy of austerity on the planet. The panel is chaired by Dr. Charlotte Burns of the University of York, who recently secured funding for three years to examine the impact of austerity on European environmental policy.

The panel begins with a paper by Viviane Gravey, investigating 20 years of attempts to dismantle EU environmental policies. Building on policy dismantling studies, her paper asks what could drive European actors to target the EU’s “green acquis”, and analyses the strategies EU actors deploy in order to cut policies in a highly consensual political system. It provides an historical background to the panel discussions, highlighting how calls to cut policies and remove policy proposals predate austerity. The paper argues that these repeated calls for dismantling have had broad effects – affecting existing policies, how proposals are produced and the culture of the Commission as a whole – paving the way for austerity at EU level.

From here, Paul Tobin and Charlotte Burns seek to answer the question, ‘how do we measure the impact of austerity on the environment?’ Their paper assesses whether budgetary amendments, institutional alterations, and both qualitative and quantitative changes to legislation can be possible impact indicators, finding that a triangulated approach which encompasses a variety of methods would enable the best assessment of austerity’s influence. From here, the co-authors provide the latest findings from three months of elite interviews in Brussels, identifying a change of narrative that has occurred with the selection of the new, pro-austerity EU Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker. This new narrative of ‘jobs and growth’ has given the EU a new niche with which to build credibility amongst European citizens, but appears to have developed to the detriment of the EU’s former identity as an environmental pioneer.

Having assessed changes at the EU level, John Karamichas’s paper examines the impact of austerity at the nation-state level, focussing on the case studies of Greece and the UK. Greece has been at the centre of austerity politics in Europe since the financial crisis, acting as the clearest example of ‘austerity by imposition’ by an external actor, in this case, the troika of the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank. The UK, on the other hand, has pursued austerity economics for ideological purposes as a result of its centre-right government.  The paper argues that regardless of the two states’ differences prior to the adoption of austerity measures, they have both entered a downward spiral where economic growth has become completely disengaged from environmental parameters.

Finally, the paper by Duncan Russel and David Benson focuses further on the UK situation. Their paper examines how green budgeting can be used as a means of stimulating sluggish economies. Here, competing discourses within environmental politics seek to minimise the impact of austerity politics by rival political institutions. By using veto player perspectives, the authors show how rival environmental policy discourses are used in bargaining games to minimize the impact of austerity politics by rival political institutions pursing their wider policy goals.

By demonstrating the development of austerity politics in Europe, establishing a methodology with which to understand the phenomenon and exploring two case studies, this panel promises to shine a spotlight on an otherwise neglected – but hugely important – contemporary issue in European politics.