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:
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.
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.
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.