EU ponders greening the single market

Commission stresses justification for precautionary principle, disappoints on specifics

Use of the precautionary principle may be justified even where it conflicts with operation of the EU's single market, according to a European Commission policy paper on integrating environmental considerations into internal market policy making.

The communication forms part of the so-called "Cardiff" process, under which six Council of Ministers groupings are in the process of preparing environmental integration strategy papers for this autumn's Helsinki summit of EU leaders. EU internal market ministers are expected to discuss the paper at their next meeting on 21 June.

Written principally by the Commission's internal market directorate, DGXV, the communication suggests methods for improving the balance between harmonisation to guarantee the free movement of goods and member states' rights to introduce restrictions to protect the environment. Specific measures could include the publication of a technical handbook evaluating how the relevant articles of the treaty (articles 28 to 30) apply to national environment measures, and updating an existing data base on ecological taxes with a view making a common framework.

A reassessment is urged of EU rules on state aid for environmental protection, as well as studies on how environmental considerations can be included in public tendering, the work of standardisation bodies and ecolabelling. The paper also stresses the need to improve the rate of transposition of directives on the environment: at 82% this is three percentage points below the average and is the single worst sector.

Responding to the communication, sources in the Council of Ministers as well as environmental NGOs have expressed dismay at a lack of concrete proposals in the document. Christian Hey of the NGO coalition the European Environmental Bureau described it as "a document of stalemate … which shows the Commission is losing momentum on the Helsinki process." He said he hoped the new Commission taking office in July would produce something much stronger.

The EEB is particularly critical of statements in the document on public procurement, describing the Commission's reiteration that the essential objective is economic as a "lost opportunity," and the "poor level of ambition" for its ecolabel scheme, which the paper describes as applying to products with "lower than average environmental impact".

Meanwhile, one Council of Ministers source described the communication as "a gimmick, not worth the paper it was written on".

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111; EEB, tel: +32 2 289 1090.

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