Is EU cross-national policy the most effective means
of addressing the issue of the environment?



Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1998





The aim of this paper is to evaluate whether cross-national policies by the EU is the most effective way of addressing the issue of environment. The conclusion of the discussion is that cross-national policy in the present form seems to be the best way of addressing the environmental issue. The reasons are that although the EU may not have the best policy, it allows the member-states to contribute with new better ideas that can be adopted and applied in future EU policies.


Europe, cross-national policy, European Union, environment




When the six initial member-states of the European Community signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, their intention was to create an economic common market built on improved communication and cooperation, to ensure a future positive economic development and a never-again return to war within the borders of Europe. They saw no need to provide common policies in issues such as, for example, the environment - mainly because they did not perceive any common threat.

This initial approach towards improved cooperation between a few European countries has since developed into today’s European Union with at present fifteen member-states, not only focusing on economic issues but a large area of social, political and environmental issues as well. The ongoing process of European integration has brought along the necessity by the EU to develop common, cross-border policies and laws in order to effectively lead its member-states towards its objectives.

One issue that has caused much discussion and raised particular concern among the EU’s member-states, is that of the environment. This paper examines how the EU’s policies in this field have developed during the decades, and what implications these have had for its member-states. A case study on environmental disagreement between member-states and the EU is presented to explain to what degree the member-states have to comply with laws and regulations set by the EU.

This leads to the question whether cross-national policy is the most effective means of addressing the issue of the environment, or whether it should be up to the individual member-states to handle their own problems. The paper attempts to answer this question by looking at possible benefits with such a policy, also focusing on how environmental problems in Eastern European countries and international agreements might shed some light to the conclusion.



According to the EU itself, the reason for the Union’s greatly developed concern about environmental issues is simply that “pollution is no respecter of national borders - it carries on the wind and water and damages environment far distant from its point of origin.”[1]

It is the EU’s strong view that many environment issues are of global concern, and should not be dealt with only on a national level. The Chernobyl disaster was one of many incidents in the 1980’s that roused environmental concern to a degree never reached before, triggering a new awareness within the EU of the importance of incorporating environmental policies into its other objectives.

Thus, the EU sees the need to set certain regulations and standards to ensure the protection of the environment in general, but also recognises that in some sectors of the environment such as, for example, waste, noise, wildlife and countryside, there is clearly a case for arguing that these are matters for national rather than EU action[2].

There would be very few people arguing against a cross-national environmental policy. It is such an important issue that most people believe that the EU, to some extent, should work towards improving the environment for all parts. Thus, the real question is not if such a policy should exist, but to what degree. Aiming at a high level of protection, the Union’s current policies extend far beyond air and water quality to include the protection of soils, habitats, fauna and flora, and the conservation of wild birds[3].

As Liefferink notes[4], the EU involvement in environmental policy was on one hand welcomed as an important step towards a common approach to the causes and effects of the degradation of the global environment. On the other hand, it was feared that this would lead to development of policies unable to accommodate specific national or local circumstances and objectives. This will be shown in the case of Denmark later in the essay, but already it should be clear that the issue seem hard to solve as different individuals have different opinions about what is an effective environmental policy.




The evolution of the EU’s environmental policy from its very beginning in the late 1960’s until today’s date suggests a very intimate relationship between economic and environmental issues. One perception, already mentioned, is that some environmental problems themselves cannot be solved at a national level because of their cross-national character. The other is the wish to avoid negative economic consequences that would result from national environmental policies[5].

The first major step taken by the EU in the environment field was primarily aimed at removing trade barriers caused by national environmental standards. This eventually led to a declaration at the European Council meeting in Paris in 1972 where the EU was invited to lay the basis for an environmental policy in the form of an Environment Action Program (EAP). The Paris summit is usually regarded as the birth of EU environmental policy, and implied the development of a wholly new set of policy goals that amended the original common market objectives from the Treaty of Rome. This first decade of EU environmental policy may be characterised by ambitious intentions combined with very modest concrete steps. The member-states were also reluctant to transfer environmental competence to the Union[6].

It was not until the mid-1980’s that broader strategies and some common emission standards were adopted. The Single European Act (SEA) that came into force in 1987 included a section that laid down the Community’s competence to act in order “to preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment”. The Maastricht Treaty, combined with the fourth EAP - both coming into force in 1993 - attempted to further bring about an integrated approach to environmental problems. In this period, many environmentally sensitive activities were regulated but with flexibility for member-states to implement them according to local conditions. Since 1972, close to 300 items of Union legislation on the environment have been enacted[7].

The fifth and latest action program for the period 1992-2000, “Towards Sustainability”, was a highly significant policy development, emphasizing the use of market-based instruments to change environmentally damaging behaviour. Many countries have now introduced environmentally oriented taxation measures and charges for such things as wastewater discharges. The program also seeks to integrate environmental considerations into other policy areas, and to develop partnerships with shared responsibilities between government, business and general public[8].

Agenda 21

Another important milestone was the endorsement by the world’s governments of Agenda 21 at the UN conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Agenda 21 sets out a plan of action to guarantee that life in the next millennium will change substantially for the better. The EU sees Agenda 21 and the fifth EAP as complements on the road towards environmental success in the beginning of the next millennium. They both acknowledge integration as the key to the future, which is especially relevant as some ten new European countries are about to join the Union[9].

These two programs indicate that environment policies will be more and more encapsulated with other policy areas in the future European Union, although Williams notices that it does not entail that more regulations is the only way to achieve environmental objectives[10].

Liefferink argues that the EU is gradually “taking over” the environmental policy field from its member-states[11]. This is, however, a rather weak and unsubstantiated argument. It must be remembered that the EU is a representation of the people in Europe, and that the development in environmental policy follows the demands by the member-states as well as international demands. A better word to explain the process would be “integration”, as has been explained above. Still, controversies do arise between the EU and its member-states in different policy areas, and a case study on Denmark’s environmental policy will here show that EU policy not always is considered effective.



As shown above, EU environmental policy dates back to the Paris summit of 1972, but its inclusion in the treaties dates back to the Single European Act of 1987. In this, it is stated that member-states are obliged to seek high environmental standards and to accept the incorporation of these in all other EU policies. However, Article 130(t) in the treaty allows any member-states to adopt more stringent environmental standards than those laid down by EU regulations or directive. This was included in the Treaty especially to meet Danish interests in the SEA and again in the Maastricht negotiations, and is also needed to satisfy Sweden and Finland. These countries, including the Netherlands, all have had traditionally high environmental standards, and thus it is not surprising that disagreements between EU policy and national policy have occurred and will continue to occur if the EU expands its cross-national environment policy with more regulations and directives[12].

Dahl shows some of these disagreements with a case study of Denmark and the Netherlands. She states that “conflicts between the objective of the internal market and environmental concern have given rise to negative consequences resulting from reduced national freedom of action for environmentally ambitious member-states of the EU”[13].

Dahl further defines the national environmental policy towards the EU as in terms of choice of strategy, and suggests that a member-state has four basic choices of policy[14]:

1.      The first strategy is to contribute expert advice and information, influencing the premises for EU decision-making process. This is in line with established procedures within the Commission.

2.      The second strategy consists in seeking political alliances with other member-states. This is also in line with EU policy and is, as the first strategy, based on co-operation and compromises.

3.      Unilateral action is a third strategy where a member-state shows little will to accept a less ambitious compromise at the EU level. It tries to stick to its own policy, and is willing to bear a possible political and financial burden of confronting the EU.

4.      A final strategy is to seek exemption from EU rules. Article 100(a) in the Maastricht Treaty gives this opportunity to a member-state if its feels that there is a major need for the country to apply more stringent environmental procedures.

These strategies indicate that the member-states have different ways of approaching EU cross-national policy, and that there is room for sovereignty in the field. Dahl believes that future environmental regulations will be in the form of minimum directives, thereby increasing national freedom of action in the environmental area[15].

Denmark is probably regarded as the most obstinate of all the EU’s member-states. Not only did it reject the first version of the Maastricht Treaty, it has also had plenty of environmental disagreements with the EU during the years. Denmark has confronted the EU by challenging common rules and has also been willing to fight for national interests in the European Court, hence taken the third above-mentioned strategy.

It is not surprising that Denmark by many is considered as the “problem child” of the EU. It has a strong tradition of independence and a high value of sovereignty and environmental concern. Its resistance has often been referred to as “Euroskepticism”, but a better explanation is that it values national developed standards to such a degree that it is not prepared to sacrifice them.

One example of a conflict between the EU and Denmark is the “bottle case” conflict in 1982, when the Danish Parliament banned the use of metal cans and decided that bottles used for beer and soft drinks had to be returnable. The Commission found this in conflict with the general rules of free trade, and the case was brought to the European Court with the Danish government fighting for exemption from internal market rules on the basis of Article 100(a)[16].

This example shows that EU cross-national policy in some circumstances may be ineffective for its member-states. However, as the member-states are offered alternatives to fight the EU, there is room for national policies to overrule those of the EU. Thus, disagreements may lead to a total increase of effectiveness in the long-term perspective, as disputes in this field increases the EU’s awareness of what future policy should be adopted to meet national and global demands.

The EU’s objectives for the future also include further co-operation with interest groups and organisation in determining its policy, as stated in its fifth EAP. Cram argues that this “may lead to the development of a shared set of assumption, to a growing sense of Europeanness (…), [and] to the development of a common identity”[17]. This, in turn, should also entail effective cross-national policy settings.



The former chapter examined how cross-national policies may be effective even for countries valuing higher environmental standards, as for example Denmark. This part briefly looks at what it could bring countries that do not fully confirm to the minimum environmental standards required by the EU. Examples of such countries are some of the former communist Eastern Europe regimes that, although not yet members, are assumed to become members in the beginning of the next millennium.

Waller & Millard acknowledge that the areas of greatest environmental concern in this region lie in Poland, the Czech Republic and the ex-GDR. Although the nature of the problems, such as air and water pollution and damage to the soil, is basically the same as for Western European countries, they see the negligence of the communist regimes to respond to the problems as the major reason for the environmental problems these countries now face[18].

Waller & Millard further argue that the new governments of Eastern Europe are unable to solve these problems by themselves, and that for this reason it is not surprising that they seek to align their environmental practices and standards with those of the European Union[19]. Hence, it must be argued that cross-national policies seem to be the most effective means of addressing the issue of environment in these countries, not only for helping them setting effective standards, but included in EU’s policy is also a huge financial support to help them speed up the process.



As the aim of this paper has been to evaluate whether cross-national policies by the EU is the most effective way of addressing the issue of environment, it has basically only looked at three alternatives of policy settings:

1.      A strong environmental policy by the EU with little or no allowance for national policy settings.

2.      A strong environmental policy, with room for member-states to apply national policies.

3.      No environmental policy, letting member-states handle environmental issues alone.

The paper has not discussed what role political parties (especially the “green” environmental parties) and other environmental organisations have in the question about environmental effectiveness. It has been assumed that as these mostly work on a national level, they contribute to the general national debate about EU policy, which has been discussed in the paper.

It has also been assumed that by effectiveness, we simply mean the best way of improving the environment without taking too much of economic aspects into concern. Whether cross-national environmental policy is the most effective way of addressing the issues of environment in conjunction with increased market competitiveness, is simply a too vast area to be cover in a short essay like this.

The conclusion of the discussion is that cross-national policy in the present form seem to be the best way of addressing the environmental issue. The reasons are that although the EU may not have the best policy, it allows the member-states to contribute with new better ideas that can be adopted and applied in future EU policies. Having some regulations and standards also ensure that countries with a less developed policy can improve their environment to the least acceptable global level. But for the EU and its member-states to continue on its road towards a better environment, it must not become a supranational unit that does not go down to the national level and listen to individual member-states needs.

All evidence shows that this is not bound to happen, though.


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Bjerregaard, R., “Agenda 21 - The first 5 years”,, Assessed 8 June 1998.

Cram, L., Policy-making in the EU, London: Routledge, 1997.

Dahl, A., “National Freedom of Action in EU Environmental Policy: The Cases of Denmark and the Netherlands”, Environmental Politics, Vol. 6 No. 3, London, 1997.

Feldmann, L., “The European Commission’s proposal for a strategic environmental assessment directive: Expanding the scope of environmental impact assessment in Europe”, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Vol. 18 No. 1, 1998.

Liefferink, D., Environment and the nation state, Manchester: Manchester United Press, 1996.

The European Commission, “The Union’s policies - Environment”, Assessed 8 June 1998.

Waller, M., & Millard, F., “Environmental Politics in Eastern Europe”, Environmental Politics, Vol. 1 No. 2, 1992.

Williams, R.H., European Union Spatial Policy and Planning, London: Paul Chapman Publishing Ltd, 1996.



[1] The European Commission, “The Union’s policies - Environment”, info.htm, Assessed 8 June, 1998.

[2] Williams, R.H., European Union Spatial Policy and Planning, London, 1996, p.190.

[3] The European Commission, “The Union’s policies …”,

[4] Liefferink, D., Environment and the nation state, Manchester, 1996, p.2.

[5] Liefferink, D., Environment and the nation state, Manchester, pp.12-13. cf. Dahl, A., “National Freedom of Action in EU Environmental Policy: The Cases of Denmark and the Netherlands”, Environmental Politics, Vol. 6 No. 3, London, 1997, p.69.

[6] Liefferink, D., Environment and the nation state, pp.4-8.

[7] Ibid., pp.9-12.

[8] The European Commission, “The Union’s policies…”,

[9] Bjerregaard, R., “Agenda 21 - The first 5 years”,, Assessed 8 June 1998.

[10] Williams, R.H., European Union Spatial Policy and Planning, p.202.

[11] Liefferink, D., Environment and the nation state, p.14.

[12] Williams, R.H., European Union Spatial Policy and Planning, pp.185-187.

[13] Dahl, A., “National Freedom of Action in EU Environmental Policy”, Environmental Politics, p.69.

[14] Ibid., pp.70-71.

[15] Dahl, A., “National Freedom of Action in EU environmental Policy”, Environmental Politics, p.75.

[16] Ibid., p.80.

[17] Cram, L., Policy-making in the EU, London, 1997, p.124.

[18] Waller, M., & Millard, F., “Environmental Politics in Eastern Europe”, Environmental Politics, Vol. 1 No. 2, 1992, pp.162-163.

[19] Ibid., p.175.