Austerity and EU environmental policy 

Since 2010, European responses to the global financial and economic crises have been dominated by a narrative of austerity. European governments have sought to bolster confidence in their economies by rolling back public spending. This narrative of austerity has been the backdrop to the European Union’s (EU) environmental policy-making. The extent to which austerity is necessarily a barrier to ambitious environmental legislation is a crucial component of our research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. How has the financial crisis affected the response of the EU towards environmental policy?

The EU before the financial crisis

While US leadership in environmental policy declined during the 1990s, the EU moved to position itself as a global pioneer of climate policy, particularly following the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997.  During the 1990s, the EU was a pioneer of air pollution regulations in particular, before developing ground-breaking climate change legislation in the 2000’s. The European Commission is the ‘commissioner’, or source, of all EU legislation. Under the guidance of José Manuel Barroso (2004-2014), the win-win objective of ‘green growth’ dominated Commission thinking around the environment. Thus, under Barroso, environmental leadership was a key signifier of the EU’s global identity.

The EU after the financial crisis

Since the financial crisis, the narrative of the environment being a ‘win-win’ opportunity appears to have been replaced by a zero-sum framing of economy first, everything else second. Fewer environmental policies were proposed during the second five year term of Barroso’s Presidency of the EU (2009-2014). Moreover, 2014 saw the formation of both a new European Parliament and a new European Commission during a context of austerity measures across Europe. Jean-Claude Juncker was selected as President in October 2014 having been the pro-austerity President of the EuroGroup between 2011 and 2014. This new Commission merged the portfolios for Climate and Energy policy together, while Environment was merged with Fisheries and Maritime Affairs. The new Climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, held links with the fossil fuel industry, while the Environment Commissioner was given a remit for deregulation. The Circular Economy package, which had already passed its impact assessment, was dropped in December 2014, apparently postponed until a future date, but with promises of a more ambitious replacement.

The election of the European Parliament in May 2014 was also shaped by austerity politics in European states. In the UK, for example, marginalised voters turned to the Eurosceptic and climate-sceptic UK Independence Party, giving the right-wing populist party the most seats from the UK allocation. UKIP are opposed to further EU legislation, weakening support in the Parliament for new environmental policies. Moreover, the rise of the party shifted the political centre to the right in the UK, resulting in a promise of an ‘In-Out’ referendum on EU membership by the ruling Conservative Party should the party remain in government in 2017. The Eurosceptic and deregulatory narrative emanating from the UK – a key EU member state – has seen a reduction in the confidence of policy-makers to achieve new environmental policies at the EU. As such, both in the Commission and the Parliament, austerity appears to be influencing environmental leadership. 

Next steps

It is still early days for the new European Commission and Parliament. Yet the next few years are likely to be pivotal for environmental policy. Climate change, for example, requires concerted and long-term policy ambition. If environmental ambition fluctuates in line with the boom and bust of the economy, the EU may not retain its reputation for effective and ambitious environmental leadership for much longer. 

Dr Paul Tobin and Dr Charlotte Burns, Environment Department, University of York (


Last modified onThursday, 27 August 2015 14:47
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