Greener EU treaty emerges from Amsterdam

Mixed results for Scandinavians on environmental guarantee but new powers for parliament, less secrecy for Council

The EU treaty has emerged from the Amsterdam Summit a distinctly greener document. Details of what was agreed by heads of state meeting in the Netherlands on Monday and Tuesday have been slow to emerge, but it now appears that significant progress was made.

For the first time, the treaty now says unequivocally that sustainable development is a central EU policy goal. There is a new treaty requirement to integrate environmental considerations into other policy areas, and the European Parliament has been given more powers in EU decision-making on environmental issues. EU countries now also have a more clearly defined right to put in place environmental legislation stricter than that agreed at EU level.

Environmentalists today welcomed the new reference to sustainable development as "revolutionary". "This is a radical change of course after 40 years of placing economic growth at the top of the EU's political priorities", said Ralph Hallo on behalf of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an umbrella body for environmental groups.

He also welcomed a new clause in the treaty requiring "environmental protection" to be "integrated into the definition and implementation of Community policies and activities". He called on the European Commission to act soon to translate the principles into concrete measures.

But there was a mixed outcome on what became the central environmental issue of the summit - the environmental guarantee sought by Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Germany. They wanted to secure the right to introduce stricter national environmental or health standards than those agreed at EU level (ENDS Daily 30 May).

Danish ministers are said to have made the clause a top priority in negotiations, fighting "fierce resistance" from southern EU states to secure the guarantee. The Danish Prime Minister insisted on television on Wednesday night that he had won a good deal.

But policy experts are less convinced. Commenting on the final text, director of the Institute of European Environmental Policy in London, Nigel Haigh, told ENDS Daily: "This is a step forward in that it [the text] now clearly recognises that member states may introduce higher standards. But it is so hedged around with restrictions that it is unsatisfactory and in my opinion will not hold. There will be internal pressure to change it."

Mr Haigh pointed to three problems facing a country wanting to introduce higher standards: it is required to provide "new scientific evidence," the problem it wants to address must be specific to the country, and the Commission has an "absolute" right to reject any measure it considers to "constitute an obstacle to the functioning of the internal market".

Mr Hallo said the new text needed to be "urgently clarified before signature of the treaty takes place". He said environmental groups would press governments and the European Commission to explain their interpretation of the new text.

EU leaders also agreed to make a number of institutional changes that hold implications for environmental legislation. They agreed to make most environmental legislation subject to the co-decision procedure, under which the European Parliament has equal powers to the Council of Ministers. The change is expected to lead to stronger environmental legislation..

However, governments stopped short of extending qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers to new environmental policy areas, including, crucially, fiscal measures. The European Commission had hoped that governments would agree to drop the requirement for unanimous voting on environmental fiscal issues, allowing it to make headway with new taxes such as an energy tax. But ENDS Daily understands that Germany was instrumental in blocking such moves.

Also welcomed by environmental groups today, were new requirements that the Council of Ministers should henceforth publish the outcome of votes on legislation, minutes and any declarations from their meetings. "This means the end of secrecy in the Council", Mr Hallo said.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111.

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