International environmental regimes: a success story of the EU’s external promotion of internal values?

European Light Pollution - courtesy: 

If an alien civilization had landed on Planet Earth on the 16th of February 2005, on the day the Kyoto Protocol on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) came into force, it would have been told that an environmental climatic breakdown was about to happen, that the planet’s days were numbered, but that at least one international power was leading the way in trying to save it: the European Union (EU).

The aliens would have probably left hastily, concerned they might drown in the rising seas, but relieved that at least one polity was taking the issue seriously, putting values before economic interests and providing crucial leadership in safeguarding the planet’s future. Their impression would be somewhat incomplete. The EU has not always been this beam of environmentalism. Far from it, it moved from the margins of the debate in the 1970s to centre stage in the 21st century. But what drove this shift? And does it reflect a coherent set of political priorities?

In this essay I will argue that assessing the successes of the EU’s environmental policies requires a more nuanced approach, one that takes into account the political ecology of environmentalism, as well as the peculiarities of the Union’s policy-making process. I will first outline how the EC/EU’s environmental policy (EEP) has changed in the context of the events that have shaped today’s international environmental regimes (IERs). I will then discuss how this shift is the result of a policy-making process, partially driven by some ‘pioneer’ Member States (MS), and partially by the desire to harmonize regulations inside the single market. I will look at how this has resulted in a number of externalities for the EU’s neighbours and trading partners, before some final considerations on the construction of environmental values, and the impact these have on developing countries.

From laggard to leader

Regimes can be defined as ‘social institutions that consist of agreed upon norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that govern the interaction of actors in specific issue areas’ [Young: 5-6]. In this sense, environmental regimes have been around for centuries, as the numerous examples of shared management systems of common natural resources testify . But when it comes to IERs, in the sense of binding agreements between nation-states, these are more recent , and pressure to establish them rose significantly after the 1960s, as a consequence of public concerns about the use of toxic substances, the increasing levels of pollution and the depletion of natural resources.

As the first environmental wave peaked in 1972, the foundations of a global environmental governance system were laid at the Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment. Three states were at the forefront of this first attempt to address global environmental challenges: Japan, Sweden and the US. Their ‘examples and experience became catalysts in the first phase of modern environmental policy’ [Andersen & Liefferink: 4]. Until then, the European Community (EC) had shown little interest in environmental matters, but under mounting pressure, the Council agreed to start taking the issue on board.

At the 1972 Paris Summit it asked the Commission to draw its first Environmental Action Plan (EAP), which was published the following year. But it was only fourteen years later that the environment – now incorporated into the Single European Act – became a formal area of EC/EU legislation. Since then, five further EAPs have been drawn, hundreds of environmental laws passed, and countless papers published to promote a greener, more sustainable Union.

This dramatic internal evolution marked an equally dramatic external shift in the EC/EU’s stand on global environmental challenges. The EC ‘is now signatory of around 60 multilateral environmental agreements, ranging from regional conventions on seas and watercourses to global agreements such as the convention … on Biodiversity and Desertification … and is a formidable participant in global environmental negotiations’ [Vogler: 839-840].

This policy shift was crucial for the establishment of the two most important IERs: those on reducing substances that deplete the ozone layer and those on curbing the emission of gases implicated in global warming. In the former case, after a recalcitrant start behind the US, the EU ‘played a key role in brokering [an international] agreement, a body of EU laws was quickly adopted and the global production of ozone-depleting substances by the mid-1990s had declined by 80-90 percent’ [McCormick: 262].

In the latter case, the EU’s role was even more significant. By the early 1990s, the Commission had decided it was going to be at the front of the international response to the challenge of global warming. From the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol Amendment to the UN FCCC, the EU positioned itself as a leading proponent of cutting greenhouse gases. When the newly-elected Bush administration rejected the protocol in 2001, it was only thanks to the EU’s determination that the protocol provisions survived and eventually entered into force in 2005: ‘whatever the failings of the CFSP … here at least was a vindication of the aspirations of the Union to become an actor in world politics’ [Vogler & Bretherton: 1].

A shared vision?

Based on these considerations, we might conclude that the EU did indeed succeed in promoting its environmental values internationally. But can we really speak of an EEP? John McCormick argues that ‘the EU has occasionally had an idiosyncratic notion of what constitutes an environmental issue’ [McCormick: 18]. The Commission’s Environment Directorate General (DG) is responsible for most of the issues conventionally defined as environmental (air/water pollution and waste management), but not all (fisheries conservation, control of pesticides, forestry, organic farming all fall under different DGs). Additionally, it is responsible for areas not usually associated with the environment, such as noise pollution and civil protection.

These divisions have long-ranging implications for how environmental policies are developed, implemented and externalised. Since the treaties and ECJ rulings have not clarified under whose remit EEP should be, the way in which certain issues are defined raises complex issues of competence within the Commission and between the Commission and the MS. In some cases the Commission has sole competence , but in others separating an environmental deliberation from its trade implications is much more complex. There are ‘political and practical difficulties in defining the boundaries between domestic and external policy, and economic and non-economic policy. [Consequently], it is usually unclear where competence for negotiations with third parties lies’ [McCormick: 265].

The resulting mixed agreements, signed by the EC and MS alike, can hardly be described as the promotion a coherent EEP . In fact, it is often during international negotiations to establish environmental regimes that different normative understandings of environmental policies between MS come to the fore. These discrepancies ‘relate not only to the general priority attached to environmental policy, but also to the [related] strategies and concepts that have been developed in a national context’ [Andersen & Liefferink: 6]. The different regulatory styles, which often reflect different policy-making styles, inform the way MS approach environmental regimes nationally and internationally.

A number of intergovernmentalist theorists, in addition, have stressed the importance of domestic politics in the shaping of environmental policies, which appear to have been strongly influenced by the interests of a few ‘pioneer states’ like Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian MS. Behind these interests lie a number of factors, such as the pressure exerted by some domestic constituencies to take the lead on environmental matters (reciprocity or two-level game), the need to ensure that the other MS adapted to their ‘higher’ standards, and not vice-versa (regulatory competition), or simply the pressure to build strategic alliances with other MS and insert certain issues onto the agenda as a bargaining tool in exchange for other, more pressing, concessions (pusher strategy) . According to these theorists, the growing importance of the EEP is a direct consequence of the intricacies of the EU’s policy-making process, rather than the reflection of an internal value-system.

There are at least two counterarguments to this position. Firstly, institutionalist theorists would point at the spectacular turnaround performed by the EU in its shift from foot-dragger to global leader in environmental issues. This move would reflect the desire by the Commission to carve out a greater international political space for itself at the expenses of MS. Secondly, neofunctionalist analysts have argued that ‘much of what the EU has done in the environmental field has been spillover from its primary concern of building the single market’ [McCormick: 18]. The harmonization of environmental regulations was a necessary step in the removal of those non-tariff barriers which were distorting the workings of the single market, but ‘the implementation of [these] measures […] was inevitably going to impact upon trade, investment and other flows across national boundaries’ [Bretherton & Vogler: 85].

This pressure has been felt on the one side by the EU’s neighbours, who have had to comply with sets of regulations because they share natural resources with the Union , on the other by its global trading partners, whose ‘access to the market requires the attainment of certain environmental standards’ [ibid.: 96-7]. Above all, the external impact of the EEP has been felt by those countries wishing to join the EU, who have had to ‘upgrade environmental protection, social development and economic growth by adopting some 300 legislative acts constituting the Union’s environmental acquis’ [Vogler: 842]. In the Commission’s view, in fact, enlargement ‘may … be the biggest single contribution to global sustainable development that the EU can make’ [ibid.].

Whose values?

John Vogler has argued that the EU has played and will continue to play a key role in setting international environmental regimes. It will do so by disseminating its own environmental norms and standards, including by integrating them in its other policy areas which have a strong external dimension, such as trade and international development. The sheer size of its single market, combined with the environmental traditions of some of its MS, guarantees the EU will retain a central role in the future promotion of IERs.

But it is the ideational field, in which values about nature are constructed and the appropriate relationship between mankind and the environment developed, that the EU will retain most of its influence, and it is surprising that this aspect has received very little attention to date. ‘Some of the mainstays of [the EU’s] internal policy development – the precautionary principle, the idea that the polluter pays, the proximity principle …, and the norm that environmental protection should be integrated into other policy areas – have gained currency beyond the borders of the single market’ [Harris: 843].

The EU is in a powerful position to shape the norms and values that set the boundaries of the debate about what is an environmental problem and how we should conceptualise sustainable development. As the largest aid donor in the world and the seat of some of the most powerful environmental NGOs, it is also well placed to enforce its own norms regardless of whether everyone else agrees with them.

For many developing nations, the historical emergence in Europe of ideas related, for example, to conservation strategies has had huge implications for how they have been able to access and manage their resources. Yet, many of these ideas, far from being based on sound scientific evidence, have risen as ‘an intellectual reaction against Victorian economic liberalism, against industrialization and urbanization, and against the loss of valued features of the environment’ [Adams: 277].

The first environmentalists translated their unease at the speed of modernisation into concern for the disappearance of the countryside, a concern that was soon exported to the territories under European domination. The colonial rulers combined their distress about environmental preservation with romanticised notions of nature in the tropics as an unspoilt paradise needing protection. The concept of conservation became an expression ‘of a rationalizing project engaged in … organizing the relations between humans and nature’ [Adams: 278]. These concepts re-emerged later during the twentieth century, when increasing modernization prompted the ‘emergence of a narrative of “nature” … influenced by the growth of industries and cities’ [Forsyth: 108]. Many of these ideas still dominate much of the EU thinking on environmental conservation and sustainable development, and are translated into normative priorities implemented through, for example, Association Agreements.

In conclusion, we need to remind ourselves that the influence of the EU in the shaping of environmental regimes might represent a success story for its growing political clout on the world stage, reflected in the leadership assumed by the EU during the negotiations for the UN FCCC and the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. This success, however, is the reflection of multiple layers of political interests and can generate the diffusion of values and ideas that might not necessarily be in the interest of the environment and/or of the people who inhabit it.


  • Adams, W.M. (1997) ‘Rationalization and Conservation: Ecology and the Management of Nature in the United Kingdom’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers – Volume 22 Issue 3 pp 277-288 – September 1997
  • Andersen, Mikael Skou & Liefferink, Duncan [ed.]: European environmental policy: the pioneers, Manchester, New York: Manchester University Press, 1997;
  • Brenton, Tony: The greening of Machiavelli – evolution of international environmental politics, London: Earthscan Publications, 1994;
  • Bretherton, Charlotte and Vogler, John: The European Union as a global actor, London; New York: Routledge, 1999;
  • Damro, Chad & Méndez, Pilar Luaces: Emissions Trading at Kyoto: From EU Resistance to Union Innovation, Environmental Politics 12, 2 (Summer 2003): 71-94
  • Forsyth, Timothy: Critical political ecology – the politics of environmental science, New York, London: Routledge, 2003
  • Jupille, Joseph, & Caporaso, James A.: States, Agency, and Rules: The EU in Global Environmental Politics, in C. Rhodes (ed.) The European Union in the World Community, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998 – p. 213-29;
  • Lenschow, Andrea: Environmental Policy: Contending Dynamics of Policy Change, in Helen Wallace, William Wallace and Mark Pollack, Policy-Making in the European Union (5th edition, OUP, 2005), chapter 12;
  • McCormick, John: Environmental policy in the European Union, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave, 2001;
  • Vogler, John: The European contribution to global environmental governance, in International Affairs, 81, 4 (2005) 835-850;
  • Vogler, John & Bretherton, Charlotte: The European Union as a Protagonist to the United States on Climate Change, in International Studies Perspectives 7(1): 1-22;
  • Young, Oran [ed.]: Global governance: drawing insights from the environmental experience, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997.

One response to “International environmental regimes: a success story of the EU’s external promotion of internal values?

  1. Great read.

    Nevertheless, a move by the EU to at least attempt to save the world from its watery grave is good news. But, we have got to ask ourselves:

    Is it enough?

    And is it too late?…

    The EU should use its influence and power to help influence its American friends and other members of the international community to enact enviromental friendly regulations for its polluters.

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