Will the future of Europe be sustainable?

by Céline Charveriat

2017 is an important year for discussing the future of Europe. A key basis for this debate is the White Paper of the European Commission,[1] alongside subsequent reflection pieces regarding specific dimensions of European policy, including the social dimension of Europe, globalization, the Economic and Monetary Union, European defense and European finances. [2]

At this stage, the environment or sustainability are largely absent from the debate. In fact, they are barely mentioned in the White Paper or within the European Council’s declaration for the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.[3] Yet the environment is one of the major success stories of the EU and provides a compelling argument for continued, and in some areas, deeper cooperation.

The White Paper sets out five scenarios for Europe’s future. Here are a few initial ideas about their implications for the environment:

Carrying on

Europe can certainly boast of its environmental successes. The European model of policy making and legislation on the environment has worked well. The process of discussion, cooperation, and agreement on common standards that the European model entails has delivered on the public’s desire for higher standards and better environmental protection more effectively than individual national governments would have. Indeed, many early initiatives by Europe were precisely because problems could not be solved by actions at national level[4] showing the added value of EU environmental policy. Furthermore, Europe’s environmental policy does not place a heavy financial burden on citizens: For every 100 euros earned by European citizens, 39 cents --at the most-- goes to sustainable growth.[5] So carrying on seems like a good idea.

Let’s take the example of water pollution. There has been a significant reduction in nutrient pollution levels in European freshwaters over the past two decades. This is predominantly due to improvements in wastewater treatment and to the reduction in point discharges of nutrients and organic pollution to freshwater bodies resulting from implementation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive. The reduction in nutrient levels is also the result of progress in some regions in reducing nitrate pollution from agriculture under the Nitrates Directive. 

Notwithstanding, carrying on without addressing current shortcomings would undermine intended policy deliverables. Diffuse pollution from agriculture remains a significant pressure in more than 40% of Europe's water bodies in rivers and coastal waters and in one-third of the water bodies in lakes and transitional waters.

In this scenario, the Devil might be in the details. Many think that Juncker’s Commission has actually not “carried on”, but instead tried to put the brakes on environmental policy making, with the notable exception of climate change action. More debate would be needed to clarify what carrying on means for the next 10 years and what areas environmental policy should focus on, in a successor to the 7th Environmental Action Programme.

Nothing but the single market

This minimalist option seems to leave some ambiguity whether the environmental acquis would remain for pieces of legislation which are not single market related;but the question of what is necessary for the single market is far from straightforward. While some would argue that product standards are all that is required to ensure a functioning internal market, EU policy (including in the EEA trade agreement), has consistently taken the approach that common standards on a broad range of issues are necessary to avoid less ambitious member states from undercutting the regulatory standards of the more ambitious states.

The Industrial Emissions Directive, along with water, waste  management, and air quality standards, are all considered relevant to fair competition within the internal market and each is included as part of the EEA agreement. Thus, it is unlikely that legislation would be rolled back to cover just the product and other standards which have a single market legal base. However, this option at least seems to suggest that there would be no addition or improvement of the acquis. While protecting the integrity of the single market has in most cases been a driver for introducing new and – on average across the EU – more ambitious policies, it also imposes some constraints. States which are eager to introduce new measures – for example, Denmark on packaging in the 1990s – sometimes have to scale back their ambitions while they wait for public opinion in other Member States to catch up. State aid rules can be seen by some governments as a constraint to introducing more environmental policies.

Another interesting example based on our findings for the Inquiry Committee of the European Parliament on automotive emissions,[6] shows that the impetus of the regulations, inspired by the single market, was to harmonize type-approval procedures among member states, rather than enforce carbon emission standards. Thus, harmonisation can sometimes lead to a lowest common denominator solution, which lacks environmental integrity.[7]

 Those who want more do more

This scenario is undoubtedly quite attractive for those who have been frustrated by the blockage of certain files due to the opposition of a few member states, especially on issues where unanimity is needed. There are already many precedents of “variable geometry” in Europe with the Euro and Schengen being the most famous. In terms of key files of interest, which could become unblocked, the example of a carbon tax comes to mind. One could also talk about the problem of soil protection.  Approximately 22% of all European land is affected by water and wind erosion. Around half of the mineral soils in Europe have low or very low organic carbon content, and over a third of European subsoils have high or very high susceptibility to compaction.  In the absence of a common European policy, member states are so far unable to tackle the multiple challenges linked with soil degradation. One could imagine that front-runners among member states could pioneer a joint approach or policy, which others could join later, once it has demonstrated its efficiency.

However, there are clear limitations to this approach. A Europe where those who want to do more can do more might lead to a situation where those who want to do less do less, leading to division and potential polarization. It risks creating an alibi for reluctant Member States to refuse to engage in discussion on more ambitious collective standards – they would routinely encourage the proponents to take the idea forward under enhanced cooperation - leading to a risk of precisely the regulatory competition the European model has tried to avoid.  

A looser club might also allow countries to opt in and opt out according to their electoral cycles, in cases when a new majority has different views from the preceding one. Such instability and uncertainty would seriously weaken the entire European construction. We have already seen problems emerge in relation to renewable energy targets: the Commission has responded to the European Council’s desire for a weaker and more flexible regime in the 2020-2030 period, but is now struggling to find a governance arrangement which ensures EU delivery of its objectives. How can one allow those Member States which want to do more without simply creating more flexibility for less ambitious Member States to do less? Allowing a core of states to do more needs to avoid a continuing divergence with other members and hold out the prospect for improving the collective standards over time.

Doing less more efficiently

At a theoretical level, a more focused agenda always makes good sense. And no one can seriously oppose efficiency. However, such a principle should apply to all scenarios, not just this one. We could do more, more efficiently, do the same more efficiently or do less more efficiently. It is important that the positive arguments for improved efficiency are not seen as necessitating a do less approach.There are some areas where doing less would be welcome – for example, cutting environmentally harmful subsidies within the European Budget – but in practice, it is far from certain that these would be the first areas of activity to be dropped. Reform of the EU budget has proved more achievable when the total is increasing; reforms in the context of overall cuts tends to create too many losers for the comfort of political decision-makers.

There are some areas where doing less would be welcome – for example, cutting environmentally harmful subsidies within the European Budget – but in practice, it is far from certain that these would be the first areas of activity to be dropped. Reform of the EU budget has proved more achievable when the total is increasing; reforms in the context of overall cuts tends to create too many losers for the comfort of political decision-makers.

More importantly, there is clear scientific consensus regarding the fact that Europe as a whole needs to do much more on the environment, for instance on climate change. From an environmental point of view, the right question should thus be: what governance arrangements between local, national and supranational authorities are most likely to allow Europe to live within planetary boundaries while guaranteeing essential economic and social rights of its citizens? What approach best fits with the sort of long-term transformation of our economies that is necessary?

More subsidiarity could in principle be compatible with stronger environmental protection. The negative implications of a Brussels-heavy approach, which does not always provide enough flexibility to reflect local realities, are plenty. However, there are also numerous examples when flexibility left to member states simply means delayed action or worse, inadequate implementation due to short-term political pressures or the domestic political economy: when having greater flexibility, politicians cannot use the card of the “Brussels diktat” as an argument against pressures from domestic interests. Providing greater space for member states in the implementation of the automotive emissions legislation did not result in greater environmental integrity, but rather the reverse.

Doing much more together

Discussing the future of Europe at a theoretical level feels a little bit like worrying about who will be in the driver’s seat, before knowing how the carriage looks like, who the passengers are and where it needs to go. Faced with a highly irrational and emotional anti-Brussels political context, putting down the five options was certainly a necessary step for the Juncker Commission. What is needed now is for Member States and European Institutions to define their objectives by 2030 and chart a credible course for action, compatible with Europe’s international obligations and with science. They also need to design new governance arrangements which are most suitable to reach Europe’s goals, based on facts and evidence of what works and what doesn’t, rather than ideology. Indeed, the ‘alternative’ futures for Europe set out the White Paper are, in practice, not alternatives. It is possible for Europe to do more together on some issues, but the same or less on other issues. In this regard, it is important that the importance of environmental protection and the success of European cooperation is emphasised. The more we can focus discussion on specific environmental issues – soil protection, waste avoidance, the health benefits of better air, protecting nature for future generations and tackling climate change – the more we can create the conditions for a debate on the future of Europe which will lead to the outcomes European citizens want.


[1] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/white_paper_on_the_future_of_europe_en.pdf

[2] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/white-paper-future-europe-reflections-and-scenarios-eu27_en

[3] http://www.consilium.europa.eu/press-releases-pdf/2017/3/47244656633_en.pdf

[4] https://ieep.eu/news/new-book-tracing-the-evolution-of-eu-environmental-policy

[5]This figure includes the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) funding for agriculture, rural development, fisheries and the environment. This is therefore a gross estimation, as a vast majority of the funding allocated goes to the CAP, whose impact on the environment is much debated.