Will the EU still be a green leader after the crisis?

By Dr Viviane Gravey*

When thinking about the impacts of the crisis on environmental policy, we need to think about all the different steps and institutions involved in making and applying policy. Each of these may be weakened by the crisis, undermining green policies overall.

In the EU, most environmental policies start as EU directives and regulations, which are then implemented (often quite differently) in each member states. How well the member states implement these depends on many factors such as, for example, the number of environmental inspectors. Implementation is then controlled by both national courts and EU institutions: the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. A weak implementation system will fail to deliver positive changes to environmental quality, irrespective of how ambitious new environmental laws are, and conversely, a lack of ambition at the decision-making stage will undermine ambition at the implementation stage.

 ©  European Commission

There have been grave concerns about implementation since the onset of the crisis. In many EU countries such as Greece, severe cuts to public finance have weakened environmental ministries and local administrations. This has meant reduced ability to fully implement environmental policies throughout the EU (an area which was already problematic before the crisis).

But much less attention has been spent on the other part of the equation: EU laws themselves, and whether they have become more or less ambitious since the crisis. This is due in part to a number of wide-spread assumptions: first, that the EU (and the European Parliament in particular) is greener than many national governments; second the idea that European integration only goes one way, towards ‘ever closer Union’ (and ever more numerous and ambitious policies). Both are increasingly contestable: for example, the 2014 European Parliament election saw a sharp drop in the number of green party Members of the European Parliament, while the 2016 British vote on Brexit showed the limits of ‘ever closer Union’.

So what is happening at EU level? We can distinguish between existing policies (those already on the rule book) and future policies (policy proposals). Concerning existing policies, calls for roll-back and deregulation date back to the early 1990s and the Danish ‘No’ vote to the Maastricht Treaty. Since then, EU environmental policies have been repeatedly criticized as either harming business competitiveness or national sovereignty. We have seen a resurgence of such calls after the crisis, with for example the UK government campaigning to ‘cut EU red tape’. Analysing EU environmental policy change from 1992 to 2014, I found 19 pieces of EU legislation (from water and air quality, to waste treatment and industrial accidents) targeted for cutting, removing or weakening, i.e. for policy dismantling. Crucially, actual dismantling remained rare, even in these policies explicitly targeted. Instead, most calls for policy dismantling appeared to be empty words, or to be defeated from within the EU political system.

Nevertheless, past difficulties to dismantle policies does not mean EU environmental policies are safe from the current crisis. A growing number of member states appear to support what was long perceived as a ‘British’ agenda, and the European Commission itself appears to be convinced that less, not more, EU policies are needed. This is perhaps best illustrated when looking at new policies, or policy proposals. Since Jean-Claude Juncker became Commission President in 2014, the Commission sharply reduced its numbers of legislative proposals. While in the 1990s and 2000s the Commission often proposed more than 150 new texts each year, the Juncker Commission only proposed two dozen acts in 2015 and 2016. In terms of environmental policy, this means there was only one new legislative proposal, on circular economy, which was sharply criticized as not ambitious enough by environmental NGOs.

In conclusion, EU environmental policy has often been portrayed as a colossus with feet of clay – ambitious EU policies let down by under-performing implementation in the member states. Yet while the crisis has made implementation even more difficult, it has also negatively impacted EU ambition in Brussels. Be it on air pollution, climate change or halting biodiversity loss, European decision-makers appear content with the status quo and reluctant to show environmental leadership going forward.


* Dr Viviane Gravey is Senior Research Associate at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, UK. Together with Professor Andrew Jordan, Dr Gravey recently published the research paper “Does the European Union have a reverse gear? Policy dismantling in a hyperconsensual polity” (Journal Of European Public Policy Vol. 23, Iss. 8, 2016)

Last modified onWednesday, 31 August 2016 16:13
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