New EU treaty "not Nice" for environment

Governments' failure to extend majority voting on environmental issues "a step backwards"

While the EU's new treaty is still under wraps after an exhausting four days of talks in Nice, France, it has nevertheless emerged that governments agreed virtually nothing to ease collective environmental policy making. The outcome is a far cry from the EU's last treaty revision in 1997, which introduced the pursuit of sustainable development as a basic political goal plus other changes intended to boost environmental protection (ENDS Daily 20 June 1997).

Governments' failure to extend qualified majority voting (QMV) on environmental matters is being described by green groups as a backwards step for the environment given that the Union's pending enlargement will greatly increase the scope for lone countries to block proposals. Before Nice, European Commission officials warned that QMV extension was vital for greater use of economic instruments under the forthcoming sixth environmental action programme (ENDS Daily 17 October).

Under the 1997 Amsterdam treaty, EU legislative proposals aimed at environmental protection are governed by article 175, which requires most Council of Ministers' decision-making to be QMV. However, member states can still veto proposals that are "primarily of a fiscal nature," concern land-use planning, or that would "significantly" affect national energy supply choices.

In the run-up to Nice, a number of EU countries had wanted to limit or delete these derogations, spurred on in particular by the Union's long-running inability to agree common rules on energy taxation. A first proposal from the Commission for an EU carbon tax was blocked by member states and given up for dead in 1996. The Commission's 1997 "Monti" proposal for harmonised excise duty rates on energy products is suffering a similar fate due to lone, but trenchant, Spanish opposition.

Ironically, Spain was not among the key opponents of extending QMV for environmental decisions, even though it is strongly against the Monti proposal. Instead, the main stumbling block was opposition to extension of QMV for tax matters in general from the UK, but also from Sweden and Ireland. Adding further irony is the fact that Britain is not opposed to the energy products directive.

Having lost the battle on extending QMV for environment, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria plus the European Commission did, however, win agreement on a side declaration. This affirms that the EU should play a "decisive role" in promoting a clean environment, both internally and internationally, and that, to achieve this goal, "full use" should be made "of all possibilities offered by the treaty...including the use of market-oriented incentives and instruments". It remains to be seen what, if any, practical significance the declaration will have.

Environmentalists are depressed by the outcome at Nice. If Amsterdam was a success then Nice is a failure, said newly elected president of coalition group the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) Ralph Hallo. "The fact that they didn't move forward on QMV in the environmental area is very disappointing," he added.

With the agenda for Nice strictly focused on preparing the EU for enlargement, there were few other possibilities for environmentally significant developments besides revising article 175 of the treaty.

One was a possible extension of the scope for so-called enhanced or reinforced cooperation between sub-EU groups of states, often seen by the most progressive countries as a way to maintain very high environmental or health standards in the absence of agreement among all member states. According to official sources, however, no changes were made in this area that could have any bearing on environmental protection.

Heads of government proclaimed the EU's new charter of fundamental rights, but this neither has legally binding status nor confers any new environmental rights (ENDS Daily 11 October). The summiteers did, however, agree a progressive resolution on the precautionary principle, on which ENDS Daily will report tomorrow.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111, the Nice treaty (posted 15/12/00) and French presidency conclusions. See also European Commission pages on the Nice summit, the final draft charter of fundamental rights, and the Amsterdam treaty.

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