A glance at the EU

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European flag
© European Commission
Over the past 50 years, EU countries have pooled their sovereignty to find new ways of delivering economic competitiveness, social benefits and a sound environment. The pursuit of sustainable development and integration of the environment into all EU policies are over-arching objectives in the EU Treaty. 
Article 2 - Principles
“The Community shall have as its task, by establishing a common market and an economic and monetary union and by implementing common policies or activities referred to in Articles 3 and 4, to promote throughout the Community a harmonious, balanced and sustainable development of economic activities, a high level of employment and of social protection, equality between men and women, sustainable and non-inflationary growth, a high degree of competitiveness and convergence of economic performance, a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment, the raising of the standard of living and quality of life, and economic and social cohesion and solidarity among Member States.”

Article 6
“Environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of the Community policies and activities referred to in Article 3, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development.”

The European Union

Following the 2nd World War’s devastation, the EU’s founding fathers believed the best way to encourage peaceful European development was through building economic ties.

With the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, 6 founding countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) created the European Economic Community, that later became the European Union.

Other Treaties and accessions followed this act.

Nowadays, the European Union (EU) gathers 27 European countries in an unprecedented experience of pulled sovereignty.

With approximately 500 million citizens, the EU is the largest trading bloc in the world.

The EU Institutions

The EU is made up of 5 principal institutions.

The European Commission proposes laws to the Council and Parliament, manages their implementation and represents the common interests within and outside the EU. The 27 commissioners – 1 per country – are appointed for 5-year terms by the Council in agreement with national governments, and are confirmed by the European Parliament to which the Commission is answerable.

The European Parliament votes on and scrutinizes implementation of the EU budget, considers the Commission’s proposals and decides together with the Council on a number of legislative decisions. The European Parliament is composed of members directly elected by European citizens for a 5-year term.

The Council of the European Union (also known as the Council of Ministers) represents individual member countries through their own ministers. The Presidency rotates between member states every 6 months. The Council is the main EU decision-making body. The “European Council” gathers individual countries at the level of Heads of State and Government.

There are also the European Court of Justice, which ensures the respect of the European Treaties and laws, and the Court of Auditors, which examines the regularity of EU accounts.

The 27 Members

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latvia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • the Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

5 decades of European environmental history

1950’s-60s – Economic boom and exploitation of natural resources

After the destruction brought by World War II, a new start for the European continent quickly turns into a period of rapid economic growth. The spotlight is on markets, energy and economic co-operation. Environmental policy is missing in the Treaties establishing the European Economic Community of 1957. But the earlier creation of the European Steel and Coal Community, in 1951, and the introduction of a Common Agriculture Policy in the Treaty of Rome in 1957 pointed to the need of joint management of natural resources – from coal to cattle and fish – as a key factor of stability and peace. This is the beginning of the oil and nuclear era and the political focus is clearly set on economic growth and natural resources exploitation.

1970s – Pollution

The headlong rush to economic growth over the first two decades brings its own problems. The first oil crisis in 1973 is a wake up call that petroleum resources are not always coming from the most politically secure countries in the world. The first United Nations Conference on the Environment opens in Stockholm in 1972. The first European Environmental Action Programme appears a year later. In this period EEC environmental laws come into being to solve specific pollution problems – such as noise, air quality and water contamination – caused by rapid and often largely unconstrained economic development.

The responsibility for implementing and upholding the laws is firmly with the public authorities rather than the ones causing the environmental problems in the first place. Only after key first steps, the responsibility for keeping good environmental conditions starts to move to producers and manufacturers.

1980s – Global challenges

The perception of environmental problems being mainly local and capable of local clean-up efforts takes a huge knock in the 1980s. This is the decade of several major industrial accidents that shook public confidence in the adequacy of public health and environmental laws. The explosion of nuclear reactors in the United States (Three Mile Island) and Russia (Chernobyl) permanently changes public perceptions of nuclear power. The Seveso and Bhopal accidents at major chemical plants in Italy and India respectively have much the same effect for major chemical installations.

Meanwhile, the plight of the rubber-tappers in Amazonia, standing up against the forces of deforestation led by commercial cattle ranching, catches international public attention and sympathy.

It is in these years that the global debate on climate change officially enters the global agenda and large world-wide environmental campaigns – such as the one to stop Amazon deforestation – are inaugurated. Europe responds with the insertion in the EU Treaties, for the first time, of a separate environmental chapter.

The Single European Act in 1986 allows environmental actions to be undertaken in their own right to preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment, contribute towards protecting human health and assuring the prudent and rational utilisation of natural resources.

1990s – Towards Sustainable Development

With the World Commission on Environment and Development definition of sustainable development ringing in everyone’s ears – development which meets the needs of today without sacrificing the needs of tomorrow – the EU calls its fifth action programme on the environment ‘Towards Sustainability.’

A fourth objective is added to the purposes of environmental policy in the Treaty of the European Union: ‘contribute to promoting on an international scale measures taken to deal with regional or global environmental problems.’

Remarkably, sustainable development is added to the Treaty of Amsterdam as one of the EU’s overriding objectives. Important laws are passed for the protection of nature at a continental scale through the creation of a network of protected areas known as Natura 2000, now covering almost 20% of the European land area, and for the protection of Europe’s water resources. It is in these years that the EU starts to play a major role in international agreements, such as the Kyoto Climate Protocol.

2000s – Environment versus Competitiveness
The high point of the EU’s commitment to sustainable development is arguably the Gothenburg Summit declaration in 2001. This committed the European Union to a number of targets, including halting biodiversity loss by 2010.

But the clash between these sustainable development ambitions on the one hand and the economic competitiveness and jobs agenda on the other is shown in stark relief by the Lisbon European Council declaration of the year before. This called for Europe to be the most dynamic economy in the world, also by 2010.

All the environmental skirmishes of the first decade of this century have had the jobs versus environmental protection debate at their core. The classic example is the landmark legislation for the registration and authorisation of chemicals, REACH, which completed its 3-year legislative journey in 2006 substantially weakened in some of the key provisions initially proposed while still setting a world standard for chemicals reform.

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