Business groups and some Member States, including the UK, have been demanding with increasing vigour that EU policy should focus more on competitiveness and deregulation. The theme has been taken up by several of the new Commissioners since the autumn, to the growing consternation of environmental organisations.
Explicitly playing down the importance of environmental protection would scarcely be a wise move, and the Commission opted for a muddying of the waters when it unveiled its 2005 work programme and strategic objectives for 2005-09 on 26 January.
The three strategic themes are prosperity, solidarity and security, but, according to Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, prosperity is the "clear number one priority". Prosperity, he told the European Parliament, "requires economic growth, it requires competitiveness, it requires productivity. These are the conditions to nurture sustainable development."
That appeared to place sustainable development in a subordinate position. But in the next breath Mr Barroso said: "The constitution lays down sustainable development as the framework for all our policies. This must underlie all our work."
The European Environmental Bureau, the lead umbrella body of environmental groups in the EU, remains concerned. Its secretary general, John Hontelez, warned the Commission that "it is making a big mistake to marginalise the environmental agenda in this way...Politicians should stop looking at environmental policies as something you can do once you have achieved 3% annual GDP growth."
Planned environmental initiatives are certainly scarcer in the 2005 work programme than a few years ago - though not as thin on the ground as in last year's slimline programme (ENDS Report 346, p 53 ).
Moreover, some of last year's commitments were not delivered - foremost among them three thematic strategies on air pollution, pesticides, and waste prevention and recycling.
Thematic strategies were the chosen method for addressing several of the key policy priorities identified in the EU's sixth Environment Action Programme.
Seven are due in all - and all are now due for publication this year. They are a wholly untested instrument, and the balance they strike - between mandatory and voluntary action, and between business costs and environmental benefits - as well as their likely effectiveness in integrating action across sectors will be among the main talking-points for EU environmental policy this year.
The work programme has two main components - a list of priorities to which the Commission is firmly committed, and a second list of initiatives on which action is less certain.
The seven thematic strategies dominate the list of firm priorities:
In a paper published with the work programme, the Commission says that "initial indications would point to measures on small scale combustion plant (including domestic heating, commercial installations and district heating), road vehicle emissions limits, measures to abate agricultural emissions of ammonia and probably new measures to reduce the growing contribution of ship-based emissions." Some of these measures, if pursued, would take EU policy into new areas.
A wide variety of possible measures was mooted in a consultation two years ago (ENDS Report 341, pp 53-54 ). According to the Commission, late work is still under way examining the impacts and benefits of recycling products and/or materials, and on extending the Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control to more waste management operations.
In a paper published alongside the work programme, the Commission reveals that it is working on a two-stage approach: establishing a common vision and strategic goals applicable to all seas, and then introducing a regional dimension under which objectives, targets, deadlines and programmes of measures would be defined by Member States.
The big issue is whether this should be pursued by voluntary means, or whether a framework Directive spelling out Member States' basic obligations in developing regional seas programmes is needed.
Options under consideration include aviation fuel taxes, emission charges and bringing aviation within the EU emissions trading scheme - though the Commission says that it will "likely suggest a combination of measures." In view of the urgency of action, special attention will be paid to ease of implementation, "specifically as concerns lead time necessary to achieve results."
Now, the Commission is thinking in terms of a framework Directive as well. The strategy and legislation "would not just draw together existing actions for soil protection in environmental and agricultural legislation, but take an action-based approach, setting out targets to be achieved over a reasonable period.
"For example, a common definition of contaminated sites, the establishment of inventories of sites and national plans for remediation could be envisaged for contamination."
currently scheduled for December, will be the last of the seven. The main options still being considered are a voluntary approach and a strategy with some mandatory elements - such as urban environment management plans and sustainable transport plans.
Measures included in the work programme but without a precise publication date are:
The paper will identify the barriers to realising the 20% cost-effective energy savings potential which exists in the European economy, and outline policy options for overcoming them over the next five years. The paper "will cover the areas of heat, electricity and transport and all the end-use sectors."
The paper is expected in the final quarter of the year. It will, the Commission says, provide a road map with quantified targets in both biomass production and use.
The Commission has also published a further list of legislative proposals and other actions which have a lesser political priority. In the past, this has been badged as an "indicative" list of measures which the Commission "could envisage adopting" during the year - though there is no such description this year.
The main environment-related measures on the list are:
The Commission is also promising an accompanying Communication which "addresses the role of existing Community instruments and outlines certain follow-up actions in order to achieve the environmental objectives of the water framework Directive as regards chemical pollution of surface waters by priority substances."
due in March will update the Commission's 1997 paper on the subject, widening its scope to include tradable permits. More importantly, it will also "explore the opportunities for measures to further promote the use of market-based instruments at EU level."
The timing of other measures in the package is unclear, but they may include a strengthening of existing liability provisions for marine pollution, an extension of the competence of the new European Maritime Safety Agency, and provisions on post-accident inquiries.
by road and rail. Basic obligations on shipment of radioactive materials will also be laid down.