European Environment Policy: the early years

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The early days of European Environment Policy


2023 is the 50th Anniversary of the creation of the first environment service within the European Commission on 1January 1973 as well as of the first Environment Committee within the European Parliament. The European Green Deal is now one of the key priorities of the European Union, and it is hard to imagine, therefore, that environmental policy only began to be considered at European level from around 1970 onwards and only became of real importance at a considerably later date.

The present blog looks at the early days of European environment policy from the perspective of some of the main European Parliament and Commission actors who have contributed to the oral holdings of the HAEU.

Developments before the 1979 direct elections

As outlined in many interviews in the HAEU Archives, such as those of Michel Carpentier, Stanley Johnson and Ludwig Kramer, the early 1970s were a key moment in the development of environmental policy at European level, despite the absence of an explicit legal base in the original EC Treaties. The UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972, the work on Limits to Growth of the Club of Rome,  and legislative developments in the US all helped to build momentum for action on the environment at European level, which was formally decided upon at a meeting of heads of state and government in Paris in October 1972.The first Community Environmental Action Programme was adopted in 1973 and over the next few years many important pieces of Community environment legislation were then approved

Several of the HAEU interviews emphasise the significant role that had been played by two European Commissioners, Sicco Mansholt and Altiero Spinelli, in calling for environmental policy considerations to be taken into much greater account by European policy-makers. Robert Toulemon, for example, describes the role of Spinelli: “II avait aussi un tres vif interet, que je partageais, pour les problèmes de société et d’environnement. il qualifiait parfois I’industrie de « tigre qu’il fallait maitriser». Toulemon went on to state his own pride in then having created the very first environment policy unit within the Commission.

Michel Carpentier goes into much greater in his very lengthy set of interviews. “….c’est dès 1970 que M. Spinelli m’a demandé si je serais intéressé par l’environnement. Pour être franc, j’ignorais presque tout de ce concept, devenu depuis une politique. C’était un concept qui échappait à beaucoup de gens. Par contre, il a été immédiatement soutenu par M. Toulemon. …Beaucoup de gens, y compris en France, considéraient l’environnement comme un gadget!

J’ai commencé avec ma secrétaire et trois ou quatre personnes des questions d’environnement. Petit à petit, il y a eu une arrivée de personnel.”

Several of the oral interviews describe the key role that Carpentier went on to play in the creation of European environmental policy and in the transformation of a small environmental service within the Commission into a fully-fledged Directorate General by 1981. He was the “ideal man for the job, almost pugilistic”, according to Stanley Johnson.

Other European Commission officials who have been interviewed have spoken extensively about these pioneer days. Long-serving Commission official Ludwig Kramer, for example, vividly conveys the motivation and idealism of those working within the new environment section of the Commission.

The creation of a dedicated environment service within the European Commission was later mirrored within the nominated European Parliament. There had previously been no EP Committee with environment in its title, but a new Public Health and Environment Committee was first established in 1973, with consumer protection later added in 1976.

Developments after the first direct elections in 1979

After 1979 the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection was again re-established and gradually increased in power. It also became one of the busiest European legislative committees, after the introduction of first the cooperation and then the co-decision procedures. From 1979 until 1999 the Committee only had two chairs, the UK Labour MEP Ken Collins from 1979-1984 and again from 1989-1999 and the German SPD MEP Beate Weber from 1984-89. Both have been interviewed in the Collecting Memories series.

Ken Collins’s interview recalls his initial election in 1979 (“partly by accident and partly out of conviction”) and his almost immediate appointment as Chair of the Environment Committee. He had had no idea that he was in the running for this post, but was rung up when on holiday by David Blackman, a Socialist Group staff member to be told that the Labour delegation had opted for this Committee (Anita Pollack’s book on Labour MEPs (2009) claims that this was on the basis of tossing a coin, p.20) and that he would be the Chair.

Interview with Collins, Kenneth | HAEU Reference Code: INT814

His interview goes on to look at some of the key moments during his chairmanship, especially some of the key institutional innovations (such as the creation of the European Environment and Medicines Agencies) and policy achievements. A particular success that he cites in the latter context was initiated towards the end of his chairmanship, namely the water framework directive, which Collins suggests was “dreamed up over a cup of coffee”.

Interview with Collins, Kenneth | HAEU Reference Code: INT814

Another interesting theme that he raised was that of the relationship between MEPs and lobbyists. Whereas some MEPs were wary of them, he believed in talking to everyone as long as one followed Barbara Castle’s advice; “Never be afraid to bite the hand that feeds you”.

Besides the successes, Ken Collins also speaks of areas where the EP had achieved less, such as on the creation of the European Environment Agency “which didn’t quite have the powers that we wanted, for example inspection powers.” He concluded, however, that “After 20 years I felt that we achieved more than we didn’t,”

There is also a very rich interview with Beate Weber, who speaks extensively of her experience in the EP Environment Committee. One matter on which she was very proud was on the creation of a Committee of Inquiry to follow up on the disaster at Seveso and on the lost barrels of toxic waste,  As she explains, the barrels were never found but not for lack of effort on her part:

Interview with Weber-Schuerholz, Beate | HAEU Reference Code: INT902

She goes on to conclude that “…it was very successful to have such a committee of inquiry, to have Member States appearing before the Committee and thus for the EP a crucial moment… and for the Member States to realize that the EP had teeth, and that was a good experience.”

Beate Weber also speaks about a number of other areas where the EP made an impact, such as its successful fight against the Council on a legal base issue affecting the Parliament’s new powers relating to a Commission proposal on waste from the titanium dioxide industry.

The issue of freedom of access to environmental information was another issue to which she attached great importance. She expresses her criticism of the Council’s lack of openness in deliberating on environmental files such as the Nox Directive and pretending to make arguments in the public arena that they had not made in their private and secret discussions.  We always fought for a public debate in the Council, but we never succeeded.

A very interesting section of her interview relates to the way in which she brought her European Parliament environmental concerns into her work on Heidelberg City Council. “I brought everything I learned into the city…a very practical down to earth experience”.   This was particularly the case after she had left the European Parliament and had become Mayor. In one especially striking example she found that there was still no German law transposing the EU Directive on public access to environmental information and she then incorporated the latter in a local municipal law. She was not challenged by the German authorities! She did something unique in legal terms as she explains:

Interview with Weber-Schuerholz, Beate | HAEU Reference Code: INT902

Stanley Johnson, father of Boris Johnson, covers in his first HAEU interview his experience as a British Conservative MEP between 1979 and 1984. He became the first chair of the EP Animal Welfare Intergroup and many of the issues to which he refers are related to animal protection, the habitats, birds and zoos directives, vivisection, and animal experimentation as well as the sensitive issue of imports of baby seal products.

He also claims to have played a significant role in adding a phrase at the end of the section on environment policy of the Spinelli-inspired Draft Treaty on European Union, which refers to the need to take measures in the field of animal protection.

Interview with Johnson, Stanley | HAEU Reference Code: INT185

He concludes that he had had “a very interesting time in the European Parliament,” and had “done some things that were important”

Ludwig Kramer’s HAEU interview also speaks of the EP’s influence on the way in which the Commission was tackling environment policy, notably in the EP’s push for an implementation unit within the Commission. “Parlement a ecrit un rapport relativement dur sur la non application du droit communautaire.” The Commission then set up such an environment policy implementation unit, of which Kramer became the head. Beate Weber also refers to the EP role in the monitoring of the implementation of EU environmental legislation, a task which was difficult to carry out at EU-wide level but needed to be carried out within each EU Member State with the help of “nationally aware European Parliamentarians.”

All the above interviews cast interesting light on the early days of European environment policy, first within the European Commission and then more specifically within the European Parliament.

Beate Weber concludes her interview by expressing cautious optimism about the EP’s future role.  “Progress is step by step, This Parliament is not old, it is still a sort of teenager”. The EP impact on shaping EU legislation was still “Not enough but already much more than at the beginning.” In a subsequent blog I intend to look at some later episodes in the European Parliament handling of environmental policy, in particular its role in the adoption of the Regulation on REACH, and its participation in international climate change negotiation.

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