The environment, bone of contention in the EU

Article published on June 6, 2003
community published
Article published on June 6, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

As a body sensitive to the arguments of an well-integrated green lobby, the EU has introduced innovative environmental policies. Yet it must often bow before the reticence of States and anti-green alliances.

It is easy to be seduced by the European Union's strength in the development of innovative environmental policies, spurred on by a handful of convinced parties. Following the example of the avant-garde 'High' Europe (modelled on the systems of the Scandinavian countries and Germany), the European Community has multiplied its environmental Directives, imposing ever more drastic norms. Pro-environment lobbies such as WWF, Friends of the Earth Europe, Greenpeace and the European Environmental Bureau support this trend through intense lobbying in the various institutions. In practice, it is not rare for them to be called to contribute to long-term environmental policy strategies, nor when specific issues are raised to work on the details of their practical solution. Inspired by these indefatigable militants, the European Commission has initiated innovative - even exemplary - projects (if they are implemented, that is) in a great many areas. Controls on chemicals and integrated product policy for example. Alongside these long-term strategies, the European Union has shown its ability to react to industrial disasters such as Seveso in 1976 right through to the sinking of the Prestige last year.

"The bottles of contention"

In light of this commitment, how has it happened that GMOs have been authorised for cultivation in Europe, that the air we breathe has got dirtier? Why have certain countries allowed themselves to ignore the European Directives and the condemnations of the Court of Justice?

The reality is indeed much less 'green' than desired. The environment is still a subject for acrimonious discussions and great reticence. 'Low' Europe (Greece, Italy, Spain), and a few 'weak centrists' including the UK and France are dragging their heels. The differences in approach and therefore in levels of protection and commitment in the States makes a level of high protect difficult to attain. As soon as it comes to implementing environmental policy, the Member States roll out contradictory scientific evidence to support national technology and industry. Some of the better known examples like "the bottles of discord" (a dispute concerning the recycling of plastic bottles) or catalytic converters have seen France and Germany in opposing camps. "Have we not developed the cheapest and cleanest techniques?" they exclaim. What is more, the position of States on some polemic subjects like GMOs or chemicals are based more on economic reasoning than on democratic logic and eco-citizenship. The example of the White Paper on chemicals where nothing is known of their effect on man and the environment is one of these perplexing cases. Whilst waiting for the results of testes on more than 20 000 chemicals in this category, the Commission ceded to pressure from the chemicals industry and postponed the classification of the substances being tested (which can lead to a temporary ban). Is this any kind of application of the precautionary principle?

The united front of industry and trade unions against nature

This example illustrates the primordial role played by lobbies in the Community decision-making process. Interested parties are solicited at many points in the decision-making process, right from the sketching of broad policy lines (consultation during the drafting of green and white papers). The extension of the co-decision procedure to the majority of environment questions has given more influence to the lobbies, who draft many amendments that are then passed to the parliamentarians who support them.

In this game NGOs and consumer groups have a certain advantage of seniority. What is more, 'green' parliamentarians are a privileged (and consenting) target for their lobbying campaigns. The industry sector, thanks to strong European federations, has however rapidly reinvested in the field of environmental lobbying. And, although it often only acts in crises, once the lobby machine gets going it is difficult to stop - even if it heading for a brick wall! The means employed are often massive, whether for the support of a common action or for the defence of one sectoral position against another. Playing the blackmail of employment and the distortion of competition, industries rally politicians behind them in disputes that rarely attract much media attention. Chemicals industries, understanding their interests, rallied workers' union to oppose the Commission. Can they really ban chemicals, leading to the disappearance of products indispensable (?) to our everyday lives? And the jobs? How to resist such pressure?

For it is given that on questions of economic viability that environmental policy is questionable!!! Or at least that is what we are told: we must find the best environmental solution at the lowest price. This question pits industries and Member States against the European Commission, as well as DG Environment against other Commission DGs... What to choose between a healthy habitable planet and a job for everybody? To ask for both together seems a contradiction in terms. Despite a public good will, the real debate has not yet started.