On the table was an agreement reached between European car manufacturers and the European Commission that average carbon dioxide emissions from new cars would be reduced by 25%, from 186 grams per kilometre today to 140g/km by 2008.
Speaking on behalf of the Austrian EU presidency, Mr Bartenstein said that this alone would achieve one-sixth of the Union's commitment under the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8% from 1990 levels by 2008-2012. EU transport commissioner Neil Kinnock, sitting in for environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard who is recovering from an accident, said the deal "demonstrated to our international partners that we are taking our commitment seriously".
Ministers had been expected merely to rubber stamp the deal, which was finalised between the Commission and the European car makers association ACEA in July (ENDS Daily 30 July). But unrelated concerns on the part of Denmark and Greece meant ministers debated the issue for three hours before they reached a consensus.
Denmark wanted ministers to call on the Commission to prepare contingency legislation which could be brought forwards if the car makers failed to live up to their commitment - a measure supported by some environmental NGOs. Other countries and the European Commission objected. "We would be undermining the good faith [of the agreement]," Mr Kinnock said today, "if we were working, in some laboratory, on legislation to drop on the heads of the car manufacturers."
Ministers finally agreed to specify that the Commission should "immediately" come forward with legislation if it became clear that ACEA was reneging on the deal, but should not be asked to prepare it in anticipation of this eventuality.
Mr Kinnock said he was positive about voluntary agreements on environmental issues. They could have more immediate effects than formal legislation, he said, and could be used in other sectors. But he stressed they were not "some brilliant new ploy whereby we can do away with legislation".
The main hold-up to consensus on the ACEA deal was an objection by Greece to one part of the draft statement in which ministers gave an undertaking to push ahead with the Commission's proposal for harmonised levels of energy taxes across the EU (ENDS Daily 6 July).
According to a source at the meeting, Greece said it was strongly opposed to any measure that would increase the price of fuel at a time when it was trying to keep inflation to a minimum in order to comply with the criteria of the EU's Maastricht Treaty.
EU Council of Ministers, tel: + 32 2 285 6111.
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