Science in Society Archive

Can the EU Help Build a Sustainable World?

Dr. Caroline Lucas MEP on the challenges and opportunities for a sustainable world in the new European Union

The challenges

I want to talk about the role of the European Union (EU) in helping to build a sustainable world, and in particular, to outline some of the challenges that need to be overcome before the EU can fulfill its potential in this most urgent of tasks.

And the case that I would make is that the EU is facing something of a crisis in its policymaking on sustainable development, that the gains which the EU has made in the past could well be lost in the future, and that the role of the EU as a progressive force on sustainable development issues is by no means guaranteed in the future.

Admittedly the word ‘crisis’ is a strong one.  But this rather grim assessment is based on three things in particular: first, an enlargement process which, I would argue, has lost its way; second, a review of the EU’s own sustainable development strategy which reveals that progress towards the quite modest goals it has set itself has been – in most, but not all areas – painfully slow; and third, a draft EU constitution which has failed either to reinvigorate the EU with a new sense of purpose, or to grasp this unprecedented opportunity to put sustainable development at the heart of the Union.

Set that against the wider political context of the growing euro-scepticism across a large number of EU member states; the no votes to the constitution in France and the Netherlands, the low turn-out in European elections, and the growing disconnection between the EU institutions and the citizens they are supposed to represent, I think we have some justification for using that word, crisis.

You may be familiar with the idea that the two Chinese ideograms for “crisis” represent threat and opportunity respectively and I would readily admit that the situation in the EU at the moment is not only one of threats, but also some big opportunities out there, and one of the things I want to talk about is how we grasp those opportunities, and put sustainable development at the heart of EU policy-making.

EU enlargement

Impact on environment in accession countries

So first, let’s take a quick look at the impact of EU enlargement on the environment in the accession countries. Will enlargement result in a step forward or backward for sustainable development?   At first glance it might seem that the answer is obviously a positive one - but quite frankly, to my mind, the jury is still out.  Because while, quite clearly, the environment in the accession countries will benefit from the implementation of some EU environmental legislation in areas like air pollution and water quality, there is a very real danger that those gains could be undermined by acceleration in unsustainable production and consumption patterns.

On the positive side, take the EU’s laws on clean air.  Every year, several tens of thousands of people die prematurely in the accession countries because of air pollution, which has been reaching catastrophic levels. According to an independent study written for the European Commission [1], at least 15 000 lives will be saved every year when the EU legislation for clean air is fully implemented in these countries. EU laws should also lead to better drinking water quality, cleaner rivers and bathing waters and improved waste management, with recycling and waste prevention potentially cutting the amount of waste to landfill by 50 percent. These gains are by no means guaranteed, however.   

One concern is about the transition periods that the accession countries were granted for the implementation and enforcement of the EU environmental legislation.  While clearly justified and legitimate in themselves, given the investment over many years that will be required to implement new legislation, it will be important to ensure that these transition periods are not misused to gain short term economic advantages, by delaying the implementation of urgently needed environmental measures.

For speedy implementation of EU environmental laws, far greater resources must be made available to do the job. The rather grubby fights and arguments about the funding of the enlargement process has been one of the least edifying aspects of the process.

The cost of implementing EU environmental legislation alone for the 10 new Member States plus Bulgaria and Romania has been estimated at between 80 -110 billion euros over a 15 year period.  Under the current EU 2000-2006 budget, they will receive just 22 billion euro from Structural and Cohesion funds.  To put that in perspective, the costs of German reunification are running at 1.25 trillion euros, and East Germany still hasn't caught up with the West.

Unless substantially more resources are made available, and targeted with the help and support of civil society groups, hopes that accession countries will be able to “leapfrog ahead” of the current Member States and set an example for sustainable development, as DG Environment suggests, seem extremely over-optimistic.

Moreover, some of these potential gains could well be cancelled out by new threats to the environment from the enlargement process. One example is the anticipated increase in road transport driven by needs of the Single Market - the Commission has estimated, for instance, that lorry journeys across the Czech Republic could increase by as much as 40 percent after accession.  Membership of the CAP is likely to increase the pressure on farmers to use more pesticides and fertilisers, while EU funding of large infrastructure is often degrading the very environment that EU standards are supposed to uphold.

Impact on sustainable development policy making

But while hundreds of reports have been written on the likely impact of enlargement on the state of environment in the accession countries themselves, there has been much less analysis of the impact of enlargement on the process of environmental policy-making in Europe.

Suggestions are circulating, for example, that the EU will need to pause, or slow down, in passing new environmental legislation until the accession countries have caught up.  Worse still, some have even argued that we should replace binding legislation altogether with voluntary agreements.  Considering the urgent problems of toxic chemicals or climate change, to name just two examples, I think it’s clear that such an approach would be a major step backwards, and would lead to large scale environmental destruction, endangering the health of Europe’s citizens and preventing urgently needed innovation. And we need to be extremely vigilant to make sure that does not happen.

Sustainable Development Review

Back in 2001, the European Commission published its sustainable development strategy – a sustainable Europe for a better world – which set out 80 commitments on sustainable development, on everything from reducing road transport to promoting a sustainable fisheries policy, and internalising external costs.

Progress on achieving the objectives set out in the strategy is supposed to be regularly reviewed, along with a comprehensive assessment at the start of each new Commission’s term of office.   Unfortunately, however, the signs are that the Commission is neither taking this obligation very seriously, nor is it going to be in a position to report very much significant progress.

A report from the Green 8 – 8 of the most important European-wide environmental groups – is fairly damning in its own assessment, published last year.

Here are some of its conclusions.

  • The Sustainable Development Strategy as an agenda for real change is not being maintained, and there’s no consistent or comprehensive approach towards sustainable development inside the Commission.
  • With regard to REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals, a proposal for a new EU regulatory framework for chemicals adopted 29 October 2003), a reactionary campaign from European industry federations has dominated the scene so far, with a prominent reflection in the views of several Member States.
  • The Strategy has not had a positive influence on the outcomes of a number of key directives on energy products taxation, fisheries, public procurement and environmental liability, all of which have proved to be weak instruments, with the internal market and competitiveness arguments winning out over the environmental ones.

I have to say I share that analysis.  I think we have to challenge the business resistance to regulation and acknowledge that while voluntary instruments and codes of best practice have a place, they cannot replace all binding targets.


So what of the constitution?  What does the document itself, and in particular its rejection by France and the Netherlands, tell us about the state of environmental policy making in Europe?

A huge amount of lobbying went on, first of all to try to make the sustainable development provisions of the constitution stronger than we have in the current treaties.  However, it soon became clear that this was an over-ambitious aim, and that energy needed to be redirected to ensure that, at the very least, the constitution was not a step backwards - for example, the two key principles of environmental policy integration and policy coherence were very nearly lost, and only re-instated after huge protest.  As some key actors who were involved in that process have written in a recent article in the Environmental Law Network International Review, “the environmental organisations spent a great deal of time running to stand still.  It is highly unlikely that European citizens will feel that the EU has now acquired a stronger legal base to design policies that will address their fundamental concerns about the future of the environment, and the social well-.being of present and future generations.”

DG Environment itself expressed disappointment over the draft Constitution, with reports from them saying, “unfortunately the draft treaty does not go far in providing law-makers with the scope to achieve better results in the field of the environment.”

DG Environment also failed to get its special protocol on sustainable development attached to the Treaty, which would have underlined the importance of putting sustainable development firmly at the core of EU policy-making, and set out firm measures to ensure that it was not over-ridden in favour of other factors. 

To quote from a letter written on 1 July 2005 by the Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau:

“We have strong indications that President Barroso has decided that the appropriate response to the political crisis the EU is facing at the moment is to stop initiating further environmental policies. Since yesterday we understand that also REACH is in danger for that same reason. Next week he might force a revision (weakening) of the Commission’s REACH proposals. One the 12th or 20th of July the Commission will have a general debate about the purpose of the seven Strategies that the 6th EAP [Environmental Action Programme] is requiring, and their possible cumulative impact on EU’s competitiveness. This discussion could lead to a dramatic decision which should be prevented.

Believing that the support of large parts of the public in the EU can be (re)gained by giving up EU’s lead role in providing better protection of the public against pollution and environmental deterioration is, in our view, a big mistake. Quite the contrary, Eurobarometers continue to show that the European public rates environmental policies as one of the most important duties of the EU.”

Indeed, from my perspective, the biggest tragedy of the constitution is that it represents such a hugely wasted opportunity that could have been used to put sustainable development at the heart of the EU.

I’m often asked whether the EU is a positive or negative force for sustainable development.  This is not an easy question, because I believe there is a paradox at the heart of the European Union.  It is summed up in two recent European Summit objectives.  At the Lisbon Summit, the EU adopted a major new objective – to become the most competitive economy in the world.

Just a short time later, under pressure from Greens and others, it adopted a further objective – to become the most sustainable economy in the world.

But what EU policy makers have failed to recognise is that unless the quality and direction of the EU’s economic activity changes, these two objectives will not be reconcilable.   The EU has some of the best environmental policy-making in the world – but it often fails to achieve the environmental standards it sets itself – primarily because whenever there is a potential collision between economic competitiveness on one side and environmental sustainability on the other, it tends to be the economic priorities that win.  Take the proposals for an EU energy tax, for example, which could be one of the single most effective ways of internalising environmental costs and shifting towards sustainability – yet it has been blocked for years, on the grounds that it could damage the competitiveness of European industry.

At the same time, I have argued that the EU also faces a crisis of legitimacy – you see it in the low-turn out in the European elections, in the ‘no’ vote in France and the Netherlands, in the rejection of the Euro in those countries that had a referendum on it, in the initial rejection of the Nice Treaty in Ireland, in growing euro-scepticism across the EU.

And so I’d make the case that the EU needs a new Big Idea.   Fifty years ago, its aim was clear – to bring peace to Europe by binding countries together in an ambitious free trade project.  Now that project risks being an end in itself.  The debate on the future of Union has been dominated by “economism” – the idea that the overriding goals of European integration were economic and that the progress of the EU should be judged in terms of economic growth and the removal of internal market barriers alone.  People are not clear what the EU is for, any more.  Economism has allowed the EU to avoid many fundamental questions of political culture and strategic purpose and has contributed to its “crisis of idealism”, its inability to inspire the mass of citizens with a sense of enthusiasm and common cause.    

A new big idea, based on a genuine attempt to achieve sustainability in all its facets, could both revitalise the EU institutions, and re-inspire that enthusiasm.  The EU could be a leader in renewable energies, it could be a leader in learning to live more lightly on the planet, it could be a leader in pioneering different economic models which improve our quality of life without being at the expense of the environment, future generations, and the poor of both rich and developing worlds – but it needs to resolve its internal contradictions first.

Yes, the EU needs to become more democratic and accountable, less bureaucratic and remote: but it also needs to have a compelling vision of its role and purpose.   So I believe we should demand a new and better constitution that states that the fundamental aim of the new EU is to bring us closer to the ideal of sustainable development; a constitution that sets out to build a truly  “sustainable Europe”, based on a network of states and agencies with maximum subsidiarity, the devolution of responsibilities to the closest possible level to the citizen within an overarching set of high social and environmental standards, with freedom for member states to go beyond those standards if they wish.

This would allow the EU to build on its important successes in environmental and social policy, and to connect Europe’s development to the issues of globalisation, poverty, ecological degradation, and true security that will dominate the coming decades.  A new Constitution needs to be an occasion for stating what the EU stands for – as Will Hutton has argued, “Only thus can Europe have any ideological and cultural glue; without it we are just a commonwealth of states in a customs union.”

Practical Action

Finally, how does all this theory translate into practical action, particularly in what we have been talking about during this conference – issues of sustainable food production and tackling climate change?

Action at EU level is absolutely essential in order to give us an enabling policy framework in which to shift to more sustainable consumption and production patterns.

To give just 3 examples:

1. EU legislation would be key for ecological tax reform, enabling us to internalise environmental costs - one of the single most important contributions to achieving a more sustainable world. Ecological tax reform would automatically lead to less long distance freight, more localised food, less use of fertilizers and pesticides.

2. Legislation at EU level would also be essential in order to introduce regulations on multinational corporations, since introducing such legislationat national level would be more difficult, risking relocations and capital flight.The EU is therefore uniquely well placed to bring forward binding social and environmental standards, monopoly and competition laws, to break down the inordinate powers of the corporations.

3.Action at EU level is vital in order to challenge the scope and direction of the WTO – individual nations standing up at the WTO don’t tend to get heard.  In any case the EU negotiates on behalf of all 25 member states – to get the re-introduction of protective quotas and tariffs, to ensure the rich don’t keep exploiting the poor, to get anywhere nearer fairer trade, action at EU level is essential.

And what is going to bring all this about?

There is an opportunity in the EU right now as it struggles to find a new role and identity. The realities of oil peaks and climate change are getting clearer and sharper all the time.

The demands of the developing countries are getting more unified, clear; loud and more widely heard. For all its flaws, the Make Poverty History campaign was an important movement to keep building upon.

Evidence of the unsustainability of business as usual is mounting, as Michael Meacher said: (“Policies for sustainable food systems, national and global”, this series) oil is running short, water is running short, biodiversity is destroyed. Our challenge is to wake up political leaders urgently NOW so they address the changes or else we face a future of much more chaos as these changes are thrust upon us.

This article is based on a lecture given at the Sustainable World International Conference 14-15 July 2005 in UK Parliament, Westminster, London.

Article first published 28/09/05

Got something to say about this page? Comment

Comment on this article

Comments may be published. All comments are moderated. Name and email details are required.

Email address:
Your comments:
Anti spam question:
How many legs on a duck?