High environmental ambitions can strengthen the European Union


Europe is facing major changes next year. Of course, Brexit looms large, but in 2019 there will also be elections to the European Parliament, a new European Commission and probably a new President of the European Council. Negotiations on the multi-annual financial framework will enter a decisive phase.

What will the consequences be for environmental policies? It depends to a large extent on how proposals for higher ambitions are framed within a broader policy agenda.

There are many good green arguments for protecting biodiversity, reducing air and water pollution, and combating climate change – just to mention some issues.  Climate change is already high on the agenda for European policy-makers and likely to remain so. The recent strategy on plastics shows that ambitious proposals are still possible, including banning unsustainable products.

Delivering on issues important to citizens is important for the legitimacy of the European Union and for countering populism. Environment is such an area, as made clear by Eurobarometer surveys and by recent elections. However, during the Juncker Commission, progress has been slow on a number of issues, and perceived competitiveness concerns have stood in the way for reform.  Well-designed policy proposals can help change such mind-sets. The Think2030 process, co-ordinated by the IEEP, is an excellent such example.

Geopolitics is changing. Europe´s role in the world is high on the agenda for policymakers, as shown for example by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in his 2018 State of the Union speech. By using its large internal market, the EU can set global standards and thus increase its influence. Juncker took big data and artificial intelligence as examples, but there are also many cases from environmental policy where Europe has the lead (such as climate, chemicals and air pollution).

For example, the REACH regulation on chemicals is now a global standard for multinational companies, observes professor Anu Bradford at Columbia Law School in her influential 2012 article The Brussels Effect. A similar development has taken place regarding electronic products, through the RoHS and WEEE Directives.

But if the EU is slow to act, for example for “competitiveness reasons”, these kinds of standards will in the future be set in other parts of the world. Look for example at the quotas for low-emission (mainly electric) vehicles in China, a method pioneered by California but not adopted by the European Union. China is now rapidly becoming the world leader in electrification of road transport. This can be detrimental to European manufacturers, for example when China and Japan now jointly develop standards for next generation charging of electric vehicles.

Helping create jobs is still fundamental for public trust in politicians. The European economy is recovering after the financial crisis, but there are still dark clouds on the horizon, such as high levels of debt in some member countries and an unstable financial sector, for example in Italy. Ambitious and well-designed environmental policies can contribute to innovation and competitiveness on a growing world market for green products and services. Such perspectives can be further developed and integrated in EU economic policies, such as guidelines and recommendations in the European Semester. The initiative for a stronger social pillar in the EU has contributed to more focus on social issues in the European Semester. In a similar way, it should be possible to strengthen the green dimension.

Many leaders in traditional political parties fear the rise of populism, and rightly so. But the answer is not weaker European cooperation, reducing the EU to only an internal market. Ambitious environmental policies can show citizens that the EU delivers on issues important to them, and at the same time contribute to a stronger European role in the world. Such visions should form part of the upcoming election campaigns, and policies for the coming years.