Sustainable development becomes Treaty goal for EC

Sustainable development has become one of the European Community's main goals and environmental protection will have to be integrated into all its policies under amendments to the EC Treaty agreed in June. Tougher environmental rules may also result following the extension of the co-decision procedure, which gives the European Parliament greater influence, to all environmental legislation. But the amendments appear to have seriously reduced the scope for Member States to maintain or introduce stricter national environmental rules for traded goods.

The new Amsterdam Treaty, agreed by heads of state on 16-17 June, has continued the process of strengthening EC environmental policy commenced by the Single European Act of 1986 and continued by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. The key developments were as follows:

  • Sustainable development: In 1992, the initial attempt to have sustainable development established as one of the EC's main goals ended in a botch job. Under an amendment made by the Maastricht Treaty, it became one of the EC's tasks to promote "sustainable and non-inflationary growth respecting the environment."

    The job has been done better this time round. It will now be among the Community's main tasks to promote "balanced and sustainable development of economic activities," as well as "a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment."

    This amendment has been buttressed by a new provision in Article 3d of the Treaty that "environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of Community policies and activities..., in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development." In a declaration attached to the Treaty, the European Commission has promised to prepare "environmental impact assessment studies when making proposals which may have significant environmental implications."

    Environmental organisations regard these changes as more than cosmetic. A spokesman for the European Environmental Bureau, an umbrella body of groups from across the EC, described the references to sustainable development "as a radical change of course after forty years of placing economic growth at the top of the EC's political priorities."

    The Commission's commitment to prepare environmental assessments of major policies will create new opportunities for environmental groups to challenge policies in sectors such as agriculture, transport, trade, energy, industry and structural funds which have often acted as engines of environmental destruction.

  • Co-decision: The new Treaty extends the co-decision legislative procedure to Article 130s, the main article under which environmental legislation is adopted. Under the procedure, where the Council and European Parliament cannot agree on an item of legislation, direct negotiations can be held between them at the end of the decision-making process, and Parliament's hand in the outcome is considerably strengthened.

    Qualified majority voting: The Commission and environmental groups had been hoping that the move to allow adoption of environmental legislation by a qualified majority of Member States which began in Maastricht would be completed by the new Treaty. The Commission wanted this in particular to reduce the obstacles to new fiscal instruments, including its proposed carbon/energy tax.

    Four areas remained subject to unanimous decision-making under the 1992 amendments - fiscal measures relating to the environment, land use planning, water resources and energy issues. However, the Dutch Presidency is believed to have blighted the prospects for change by presenting a single all-or-nothing amendment proposing a move to majority voting in all four areas, and German resistance put paid to any change.

  • Environmental guarantee: Denmark and Sweden were the leading countries seeking a clearer right to introduce stricter national legislation than adopted at EC level. Their demands covered measures agreed under Article 100a of the Treaty, under which environmental standards are often set for traded goods such as chemicals.

    However, while the right to introduce stricter national laws was enshrined in the Treaty for the first time, it is so heavily qualified that no Member State is likely to succeed in persuading the Commission that such measures will not obstruct free trade. The implications are explored in detail on pp 22-23.

  • Access to information: A new article in the Treaty confers a right of access by any citizen to Council, Commission and Parliament documents, subject to "general principles and limits on grounds of public or private interest" to be determined by the Council within two years of the Treaty's entry into force. Each of the three institutions is to establish its own rules for public access to documents. Observers believe that the article spells an end to secrecy over Council votes, as well as declarations and statements in minutes which can be crucial to the interpretation of legislative agreements.

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