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Introduction and background
Legal basis
Policy instruments

Introduction and background

The protection of the environment is one of the major challenges for the EU to cope with. Spoiling the environment has been steadily increasing in recent decades causing a series of common problems for the Member States, such air and water pollution, destruction of natural habitats, loss of biodiversity, climate change, the greenhouse effect etc. Nowadays, it is generally acknowledged that in order to better deal with these problems, coordinated action both at a European and an international level is necessary.

A major part of the environmental legislation applied to the Member States originates from EU rules and regulations. The drawing up of common rules will prove to the advantage of the environment, as it is considered a prerequisite for the free movement of goods within the internal market of the EU.

Environmental action by the Community began in 1982 with 4 successive action programmes, based on a vertical and sectoral approach to ecological problems. During this period, the Community adopted about 200 legislative acts, mainly concerning limiting pollution by introducing minimum standards, notably for waste management, water and air pollution. In 1986, a chapter solely on the environment was integrated in the Treaty.

Since then, Community action was developed, until the Treaty on European Union (Maastrich, November 1993) conferred on it the status of an official policy. The Treaty determines that the Community environmental policy should aim at a higher level of protection and be based on the principle of preventive action. The chapter on the environment added in the Treaty sets out that the environmental dimension should be integrated in other sectoral policies. The Treaty also determines that decisions on environmental issues will be taken by qualified majority.

A further step in the same direction was taken with the Amsterdam Treaty, which broadened the European agenda so as to include environmental issues with concrete reference to specific binding objectives. It enshrined the principle of sustainable development as one of the European Community's objectives and made the high level of environmental protection one of its top priorities.

Legal basis

The Title XIX of the Treaty on European Union (articles 174 to 176) sets out the general objectives of the Community environmental policy. Based on these particular articles, it becomes obvious that the competence of the Member States is not questioned in any way by the definition and implementation of the Community environmental policy.


Coping with environmental deterioration and making sustainable development an issue of international cooperation are among the premier objectives of the EU. Nowadays, the EU is under way to complete the 6th Action Programme on the Environment. This Programme, which includes activities until 2010 and beyond, identifies the following priority areas:

- Climate, by reducing greenhouse gases to a level that will not cause unnatural variations of the earth's climate.
- Nature and biodiversity, by protecting the natural environment against pollution and halting the destruction of biodiversity.
- Environment and health, by protecting human health against the use of chemicals and other artificial substances.
- Management of natural resources and waste, by a more efficient use of natural resources, by preventing waste production and encouraging recycling and re-use of waste.
- Enlargement, by promoting the sustainable development context to the new countries which are about to join the EU.
- International environmental cooperation, by turning EU into the driving force of the promotion of environmental requirements and sustainable development at an international level.
- Dialogue, cost reduction and a solid scientific knowledge, by promoting a broader public dialogue as regards the environmental policy and by supporting the proposed measures according to reliable scientific and technical standards.

The European strategy for sustainable development was adopted in May 2001, setting out particular objectives, which essentially focus on climate change, transport, health and natural resources.

Policy instruments

The range of environmental instruments has expanded as environmental policy has developed. The EU Ministers of Environment, in cooperation with the Commission and the European Parliament, are drawing up environmental laws, which are integrated in the national laws of the Member States, so as to be immediately implemented. As regards pollution and noise, directives have already been adopted, while regulations have been adopted in the area of environmental policy and more specifically in that of natural resources policy (conservation of flora and fauna, waste management and clean technologies).

Not only has the Community adopted a legal framework providing with a high level of environmental protection as it guarantees the operation of the internal market, but it has also introduced a financial instrument for the environment (the Life financial support program), as well as various technical instruments (eco-labelling, system for the assessment of the effects of public and private projects on the environment, the criteria applicable to environmental inspections in the Member States).

In addition, a number of common European instruments have been developed in order to encourage the friendly-to-the-environment activities of companies and citizens and make them more attractive (e.g. environmental certificates schemes, environmental management projects, criteria for the eco-label award).

The 5th Community Action Programme on the Environment 'Towards Sustainability' established the principles of a European strategy of voluntary action for the period 1992-2000 and marked the beginning of a 'horizontal' Community approach, which would take account of all the causes of pollution (industry, energy, tourism, transport, agriculture).

The need for Community action on liability for damage caused to the environment and on making good such damage has been gaining ground since the issue of the White Paper on environmental liability in February 2000.

As regards the objectives of the 6th Action Programme on the Environment, the following measures are proposed: improving the application of environmental legislation, working together with the market and citizens and ensuring that other Community policies take greater account of environmental concerns. The integrated product policy is an innovation, which aims at the development of a more ecological product market by making products more environmentally sustainable throughout their life cycle.

The across-the-board approach to the environmental policy was confirmed by the Commission in the wake of its 1998 Communication on integrating the environment into EU policies and by the Vienna European Council (December 1998). The Community institutions are now obliged to take account of environmental considerations in all their other policies. Since then, this obligation has been taken into account in various Community acts, particularly in the fields of employment, energy, development cooperation, single market, industry, fisheries, economic policy and transport.

The Heads of the Member States have decided that EU should aspire to become the more competitive and based-on-knowledge area in the world (Lisbon Process, March 2000). At first, its efforts focused on economic and social development (and more specifically on economic growth and employment) only to integrate the environment later on. Upon request of the Heads of the Member States and Governments, the Councils of Ministers are called to develop such strategies for the integration of the environmental dimension into other policy sectors, such as agriculture, transport, business and energy policies.

The integration strategy, which has already been developed sufficiently, at least as a concept, may contribute to a more efficient environmental policy. Within this framework, the strengthening of the Cardiff Process (May 1998) for integrating environmental requirements into other Community policies and actions, as well as the Commission’s encouragement in order to effectuate annual reviews of detachment and integration processes are considered as absolutely necessary.

In order to achieve a balanced convergence of economic development, social cohesion and environmental protection, the implementation of the European and the respective national strategies regarding sustainable development should be carried out in accordance with the requirements set by the Lisbon Process. The systematization of a coordinated handling of the three components – social, economic, environmental – is imposed as things stand now due to their mutual influence and strengthening. Within this framework, the Spring European Council of 2003 will assess the progress made as to the application of the environmental dimension of the EU strategy for sustainable development.


Read also

Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development – Johannesburg

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Delhi)

European Union Sustainable Development Strategy

Doha Development Agenda: Trade and the Environment

Presidency Conclusions : Göteborg European Council

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