Convergent and Divergent Trends in European Environmental Policy
Convergent and Divergent Trends in European Environmental Policy
Abstract and Keywords
In the European Union, the system of environmental governance is both complex and multilevel. Whatever may be emerging at the European level, the member-state level is one that shows tremendous diversity, under the influence of well established historical legacies and highly variable current influences. There are indeed difficulties of generalising across the six countries (Germany, Spain, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) or of identifying practical rules for the improvement of policy and policy-making. And all this is before considering the genuinely contextual and tacit knowledge on which political decisions are really made. There are also no similarities and common trends across the systems. In this chapter, before looking at the comparative trends, the experience of each country is discussed, even at the risk of riding roughshod over the complexity of domestic politics.
The European system of environmental governance is both complex and multilevel. In Part II we have been looking at six member states and observing the complexities at country level. Whatever may be emerging at the European level, the member state level is one that shows tremendous diversity, under the influence of well established historical legacies and highly variable current influences. Transplant a policy-maker from one system to another, and he or she would take months, perhaps even years, to learn the rules of the local environmental politics game. What would the Dutch policy-maker do in Spain or Greece without the familiar target groups? Could a British civil servant persuade the German regulator of the virtues of flexibility and administrative discretion? How would a Spaniard persuade a northern European of the importance of desertification? Who outside of Italy would know how to redefine and reconceptualize the ethos and ideology of an Italian political party to make environmental priorities seem more attractive?
These questions give some illustration of the difficulties of generalizing across our six countries or of identifying practical rules for the improvement of policy and policy-making. And all this is before considering the genuinely contextual and tacit knowledge on which political decisions are really made. ‘All politics is local’, runs the adage. Who should sit on which committee? Who is sympathetic to environmental concerns in the transport or agriculture departments? Which research institute delivers reports that are accurate and useful? How is the governing coalition likely to change after the election? These are the sorts of questions that national policy-makers have to deal with day after day. It is small wonder that they have little incentive to engage in the difficult and often fruitless task of lesson-drawing from abroad. Still less wonder is it that they scarcely refrain from seeking to impose their own solutions on to the European level.
None of this is to say, however, that there are no similarities and common trends across our systems. Nor is it to say that we cannot construct an account that will make sense of both the differences and such similarities as there are. Before looking at the comparative trends, however, we seek to summarize the experience of each country, even at the risk of riding roughshod over the complexity of domestic politics described in detail above.
Germany experienced an early upswing in environmental awareness in public opinion and in the party system in the early 1980s. Despite subsequent fluctuation, this concern became consolidated by the mid-1980s in that the green message was spread by an enlarged and influential world of environmental groups; but—even more significantly—it became rooted in the party system at different levels. Undoubtedly, public opinion and behind it cultural predisposition—drawing on both some traditional values (romanticism about the German forest) and new social movement activity—gave special weight to environmentalist pressure from other actors. Although the aftermath of reunification and the need to deal with the consequent economic problems to some extent reduced the political weight given to environmental concerns, environmental protection now figures as a public policy goal on which there is a high degree of consensus. This is not to say that environmental protection is uncontentious, but it is to say that, as a goal, it is not likely to be challenged in the same way as, say, the high costs of the social security system.
The institutionalization of environmental policy concerns in a separate ministry had to wait until 1986. In another sense, however, the German system of environmental protection has been institutionalized for some time. With legislation going back to the nineteenth century, a system of cooperative federalism and a policy style that stresses concertation, institutional immobilisme is a feature of German environmental policy, and one of the causes of its difficulties over the implementation of EU directives.
As a large and well established player in the EU game, Germany's switch of policy stance in the early 1980s inevitably had significant effects at the European level. Concerns in the 1980s over air pollution from stationary sources and vehicles were followed by the packaging legislation that also had European ramifications. Apart from these specific measures, however, Germany pressed for the advantages of a certain national style across a whole range of issues, a style in which a conservative (precautionary) attitude to pollution risks was linked with an insistence on high technical standards of pollution control equipment. Moreover, a concern that Germany's high environmental standards should not be diluted by environmentally less advanced member states has combined with an industrial sensitivity to international competition.
In Greece the pattern is in many respects almost the opposite of the German case. Greece has a relatively new although consolidated democracy, is a much later entrant to the EU, and is still at a stage of economic development that does not easily allow post-materialist values to penetrate society. It follows that the system dynamics do not strongly favour the emergence of environmentalism: political parties have usually been opportunistic in their response to environmental issues, invariably (p.340) because of crises or public pressure (often in a local setting). Environmental groups there certainly are, but with limited political impact. They are in no position to challenge the extensive influence enjoyed by economic interests within the world of government. And there are no major indications of a break in this rather unmovable situation in the foreseeable future.
Nevertheless, the EU is an important outside influence in Greece, all the more so after Athens (specifically, PASOK) abandoned its populist reservations about European integration in the mid-1980s. If anything, Brussels is viewed as a welcome source of assistance in meeting environmental challenges. But, at the same time, that demonstrates how limited are the internal dynamics in the Greek case.
As with Greece, the approach in Spain to EU environmental policy has been determined by a still fairly recent transition from authoritarianism, inhibiting the emergence of democratic pressures, as well as even later membership of the EU. However, Spain embraced this ambitiously, with positive feelings about further integration in Europe, combined nevertheless with an abrasive pursuit of economic modernization. In this context, domestic politics have been more dynamic than in Greece, in environmental matters at least. This has been most evident in the ability of the system to adapt, such as in the opening up of government to both economic interests and environmental organizations. However, the parties are not under any serious challenge from green parties, and public opinion is rather less advanced over environmental matters than in the northern countries. Nevertheless, a link with territoriality reveals one way in which opinion can be mobilized.
Italy is neither very typically ‘southern’ nor all that ‘northern’ in its approach to environmental matters. Undoubtedly, this different position is explained to a significant extent by its being one of the founder members of the EU and having a decidedly positive view of European integration—among other reasons, as a compensation for its national system incapacity. In this context, some system dynamics have emerged over environmental matters, although too often with diffuse effects. A green challenge has emerged in the party system, but it is not compelling. More serious has been the challenge from a fairly vibrant environmental movement, while industry has in part begun to adapt more than in other southern countries.
A particular feature of the Italian case is the continuing dissatisfaction with and uncertainty about the political system, which has nevertheless managed to effect a number of institutional reforms. Meanwhile, pressure from the public and the media on the environment is now a constant factor, although it may vary in intensity across the country in line with the traditional north-south dichotomy.
The Netherlands is one of the countries traditionally pushing for high environmental standards within the EU. The domestic politics underlying this position stems from a meshing of public opinion and a party system, both of which have been strongly influenced by the rise of post-materialist values, as well as a general perception that, as a small country, the Netherlands is vulnerable to cross-boundary pollution against which international action is the only effective safeguard. It is also noteworthy that in the Netherlands environmental protection was seen to be important during the 1980s, even under the strong influence of neo-liberal values in public policy more generally.
The institutionalization of environmental policy in the Netherlands captures the general tendency of environmental policy to move from a preoccupation with human health to a more general concern with ecosystem integrity. The institutionalized interests of agriculture and the traditional system of waterways management have been important constraints on the influence of the environment ministry. More importantly, however, it is impossible to consider the institutionalization of Dutch environmental policy without also considering a policy style in which cooperative working with target groups is seen as vital. In this sense, Dutch environmental policy-making is rooted in a more general Dutch national policy style.
It is this style, rather than any particular policy measure, that the Netherlands has sought to export to the EU, most clearly in the fashioning of the Fifth Framework Programme, with its emphasis on collaborative working by the political authorities and the major social actors. The Netherlands is also important in the EU as a central member of that bloc of countries that are likely to support the strengthening of environmental measures in the Council of Ministers.
In the UK domestic support for environmental protection shows many signs of being strong in the long term, but it has not displayed the growth and dynamism of its northern neighbours. Although membership of environmental groups is high and UK political parties have adapted their policy stances over time, the dominance of the two-party system, reinforced by the first-past-the-post electoral system, has meant that environmental concerns have had to be placed inevitably in the context of the more general programmatic commitments of the political parties, and these in turn were dominated by the issue of how to reverse the UK's relative economic decline in the postwar period. Moreover, the dominant neo-liberalism of the Thatcher and Major governments never satisfactorily made up its mind about the role that the regulation of economic externalities should play in the system of government.
During this period the UK lost an institutional tradition and failed to find an alternative paradigm. The traditional system of regulation had been based on an (p.342) informal process of standard-setting administered within a context of discretion and flexibility. Under EU pressure in the 1980s, the system necessarily became more formal, with a greater emphasis on more explicit and uniform standard-setting. Within EU deliberations, the UK continued to insist upon the importance of scientific evidence, cost effectiveness and subsidiarity. At the level of specific measures, it successfully exported its concerns over integrated pollution control and eco-auditing.
The above summary of the current state of environmental politics and policy in individual countries inevitably draws attention to their specific and distinct experiences. In looking at comparative trends, however, we shall begin with the common elements. In all six countries, environmental issues achieved greater salience in the period since the mid-1980s than they had during the decade between 1975 and 1985. In terms of general public perceptions this trend is evident in the data from public attitude surveys, where there was a general upward trend in the priority accorded to the protection of the environment. From the other side of the political market-place, similar trends are evident in the party manifestoes. To be sure, there are differences as well as similarities among the countries, with Germany and the Netherlands registering stronger shifts than elsewhere as well as registering such shifts earlier and more quickly. But, as a general trend, it is clear that by the end of the 1990s environmental issues were showing a greater prominence on the political agendas of all these countries than they had at the beginning of the 1980s. Even modulations of opinion show not dissimilar trends over time, with the high point of the late 1980s and early 1990s giving way to the drop in interest during the mid-1990s. These common patterns across such diverse countries suggest a strong common cause, most likely the fluctuations of the business cycle.
Before the 1980s, the traditional policy paradigm stressed both the potential for conflict between economic growth and environmental protection and the extent to which pollution control and environmental regulation was a technical matter of primary concern to experts and specialists. Internationally dispersed currents of thinking associated with ecological modernization and sustainable development have called into question these central assumptions, and none of our sample countries has been entirely immune from their influence.
In some cases the attempted reconceptualization of the relationship between the economy and the environment has gone further. The idea of sustainable development, for example, has been particularly influential in at least the way that major policy strategy documents have been formulated, for example This Common Inheritance in the UK and the National Environmental Policy Plan in the (p.343) Netherlands. Interestingly, the specific idea of sustainable development seems to have come relatively late to Germany, whereas Germany can be seen as a pioneer in the ideology of ecological modernization. Even in the southern countries, where all too often it seems that the references to sustainable development more usually take the form of mouthing pieties than guiding action, it would not be possible for a policy-maker entirely to ignore the challenge that environmental questions pose. What we can say is that in all six countries previous policy paradigms have not remained intact. In each case there is, at the least, a willingness to acknowledge that the relationship between the economy and the environment is a complex one rather than a simple binary opposition between the two. Moreover, the greater political salience of environmental protection in the politics of mass publics means that the former assumption that environmental regulation is predominantly a technical matter for specialists no longer holds.
The organizational changes in government structures that we have documented also revealed some common elements. Here again, there were significant differences in structure, but the common trend was towards a more integrated environment ministry holding stronger powers than in the early 1980s, though trends in Spain are some exception to this generalization. Although difficult to measure in accurate cross-national terms, it also is plausible to say that one of the ways in which the environment ministry has become stronger is through a tendency for its portfolio to be held by more senior politicians than previously—or, at least, by politicians whose voices are likely to carry more weight in cabinet discussions. Moreover, there has grown up a pattern of increasing advisory bodies around these central ministries, so that the instutional space has become more crowded.
We might even see a coming together in environmental policy with the convergence of non-decisions, or at least the common problems that all the political systems have found it difficult adequately to confront. Pollution from farming is common across all six states, as is consumption-induced pollution. The latter in particular has been a problem; all six countries have had to confront the problems of how to deal with consumption-induced pollution—and with the associated difficulties of how to change lifestyles—arising from traffic, tourism, and waste. This is true whether we speak of the nefos in Athens, high levels of tropospheric ozone in Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, or the problems of water use in Spain, Italy, and Greece. Whereas traditional production-related pollution was primarily a matter of regulation, consumption-induced pollution involves more complex problems of combining moral, economic, and legal incentives to change the everyday behaviour of large numbers of people, in situations in which there is seldom a simple ‘technical fix’. However large the variation among the countries in their general willingness to promote environmental goals, they all have yet to succeed in finding the right mix of instruments and policies to cope with these complex problems.
These similarities, of course, are buried in a mass of differences, as was brought out in our country profiles in the previous section of this chapter. The scope and (p.344) range of legislation, and more particularly the depth of policy thinking, is more developed in the Netherlands and Germany than elsewhere, and these two countries have been keen to pursue higher emission standards both domestically and in Europe. A similar story can be told about institutionalization, in particular if we look at the range of depth of specialist support that is available in the northern three countries by comparison with the southern three, especially Spain and Greece. The party systems in the Netherlands and Germany have given greater scope to environmental concerns than those in the other four, and key interests in both have to pay much more attention to the pollution implications of their activities. Greece and Spain have to find ways of balancing the demands of economic growth and environmental protection in circumstances that are more challenging than in the other countries. Moreover, the extent to which national differences among member states are smoothed out by the effect of EU measures is limited, both by the legal form that directives take through reliance on the legal and administrative procedures of the different countries, and by the shortcomings of the persistent implementation deficit, present to some degree or another in all member states.
Thus, we have a picture that involves a complex combination of similarities and differences. How then can we account for this picture?
In the Introduction to Part II we set out a categorization of the variables affecting the development of national policies from which we were able to extract a simple model of convergence. According to this model, converging policy trends were to be accounted for by a mixture of top-down international pressures and bottom-up society-related pressures combined with autonomous state-related developments working on the issues to which environmental concerns gave rise. Thus, the pressures of implementation from the EU and the diffuse climate of international opinion formed the basis for the top-down pressures, whereas increasing economic growth and the associated development of post-materialism, along with the pressures coming from internationally linked non-governmental organizations in civil society, formed the basis for the bottom-up pressures. Issue characteristics, combined with the place of policy champions in the political sphere, then formed the basis for the state-related pressures for convergence in at least certain aspects of national policy.
As we noted in presenting the model, the prediction of convergence in policy patterns is not a prediction of identity in policy strategies and principles. The model of policy convergence does not apply to environmental policy-making in an unchanging way. For example, it may be possible to distinguish the stages of the policy process in terms of their susceptibility to influence from national styles or issue characteristics. Similarly, it is quite possible to hold that historically national styles have been important but that, under the pressure of common problems and increasing influences from international environmental policy regimes such as the EU, policy convergence is taking place within sectors. How does this relate to the complex picture of similarities and differences that we have observed?
In terms of society-related factors and, in particular, the level of economic development, it is not surprising that Germany should have been keen to push for high environmental standards internationally in those spheres in which its world-class engineering industry could gain a competitive advantage. Conversely, it is not surprising that the poorer countries of Spain and Greece have been resistant to calls for higher environmental standards when these have been perceived to pose barriers to economic development. For this reason, the receptiveness of the policy elites of different countries to the principles of ecological modernization has an obvious material basis. For a portion of German industry it has been economically advantageous to press for higher environmental standards, because this created a market for high-quality German engineering. Moreover, to the extent that environmental regulations on products form a barrier to trade, one would expect the highly regulated German economy to favour stringent regulations on packaging to protect its own domestic industry.
However, the structural features of the economy by themselves go only part of the way to explaining the differences. There is no one-to-one association between innovation in environmental policy and economic development, as is illustrated by the issue of instrument use. As we saw in connection with the selection of policy instruments, there remain intriguing and important differences between the countries.
The explanation for these persisting differences is to be found in the continuing influence of national regulatory styles, that is the modification of society-related effects by state-related effects. Here the German example is most striking. Despite the willingness of Germany to set higher environmental standards, the form in which policies have been developed has borrowed much from the trade regulations that go back to nineteenth-century Prussia, with a strong legalistic bias and a commitment to detailed regulation. Moreover, a strong culture which stresses the importance of economic calculability in the German business community means that uniform emission limits legally encoded have an important place. Contemporary culture thus reinforces historic legacy.
The contrasting case, in terms of policy style, is the UK, where the historical legacy is one of considerable administrative discretion adapted to the economic and natural environments within which the regulation of a specific site is occurring. Many of the changes that have been induced in this traditional policy style in recent years have come from the EU. The domestic political structures in many cases have reinforced the inherited approach.
Even where there is not a strong legacy of environmental protection institutions and practice on which to draw, as in the case of Spain, we can still see that national policy-making structures—in the case of Spain the pressures for decentralization— play an important role.
(p.346) Moreover, we cannot see the differences in environmental commitment reflecting levels of economic development in a simple way because there is much greater discontinuity in environmental policy than the linear progression of economic growth would allow for. By and large European economies grow year by year; but environmental policy changes can be rapid. Here, again, Germany provides an interesting example. The switch on policy priorities by the German government in 1982 reflected not a particular level of economic development, but the rise of the Greens to a pivotal position in the party system. Hence we cannot identify the direct influence of society-related effects on policy strategies and stances, but rather see them as mediated in important ways through political institutions and practices.
Although, in the light of new paradigms, a serious case can be made for the claim that sustainable economic growth can occur only within the limits of the carrying capacity of the environment, there is no doubt that, in the short term, certain groups or collections of interests will suffer disadvantages from the pursuit of particular environmental measures. This was true of electricity supply companies in the UK and Spain in relation to the large combustion plant directive, of that part of the car industry responsible for small vehicles in the UK, Spain, and Italy (as well as France) in relation to proposed controls on vehicle emissions, and of the wide variety of energy-intensive industries in relation to proposals for a carbon-energy tax.
As the example of the opposition to the carbon-energy tax shows, certain types of group turn out to be important in all countries, suggesting that the source of their power is economic rather than institutional, even though they have to find a way of translating their economic assets into political influence. Confirmation of the importance of the place of potential oppositional groups comes from the most striking exception: in Greece, where there is no car industry, the Greek government was able to take a much firmer line on emission limit controls than Spain, Italy or the UK.
In drawing attention to the importance of certain groups, we are not saying that there are certain sorts of interests, for example industry, that always play the same oppositional role wherever they are located. Indeed, we note below that one of the significant points of non-convergence among our six countries is the attitude of business groups to environmental protection. Nevertheless, where there are significant adverse economic implications attached to environmental measures, we should expect those groups on whom the costs of the measures are concentrated to be most active in opposition, whatever country they are in.
A particularly important group in this respect is farmers, especially those engaged in a relatively intensive form of agriculture. Their political influence derives in part from their economic role pure and simple (as well as their ability to engage in direct action in certain countries), and in part from the way in which the representation of their interests in public policy formulation has been institutionalized through agriculture ministries. In all six of our countries, the agriculture ministry plays a vital role in supporting and buttressing the agricultural interest. Moreover, the representation of agricultural interests and opinions is typically cemented through (p.347) links with particular political parties; for example, in the period since 1917 it is only recently that the agriculture minister in the Netherlands has not come from the Christian faction of the governing coalition.
Although the position of potential oppositional groups within the policy system was a common feature across all six countries, the composition and degree of opposition varies, and this is an important differentiating feature. In the case of business, for example, much depends upon the particular composition of the business community. Thus, in economies where a significant part of business is made up by pollution control industries, opposition to stringent environmental controls can be expected to be lower from business. There may also be more diffuse sources of variation coming from differences of culture and belief system. Thus, it is difficult to believe that the call for a more environmentally sensitive economy, launched by the Association of Young Entrepreneurs in Germany, did not reflect the influence of more general social attitudes and pressures.
This brings us to the distinctively state-related elements in our categorization. In our initial discussion of possible sources for convergence, we stressed the importance of issue characteristics as possible sources for convergence, and the persistence of non-decisions in the fields of agricultural pollution and traffic pollution might suggest that issue characteristics are important. Any policy paradigm would come under pressure from the effects that an observer would notice by standing on any busy street corner at rush hour. Moreover, for all our states, coastal pollution also causes serious problems.
Yet, despite these pressures for convergence from the issue characteristics, there are also different ways in which issues of sustainable development are constructed within different policy systems. For rural communities in Greece, the problems of traffic congestion are some way off as they struggle to have the road to their village improved to a higher standard. The international language of sustainable development needs to be mapped on to the specifics of each country, and in this process of mapping differences inevitably emerge.
Within this process of political construction, there is a place for politicians to influence the interpretation of ideas and priorities. One possibility that we canvassed was that the role of politicians is important not just as a symbol of or evidence for greater salience, but also for the role that as individuals they play in championing environmental policy developments. In particular, when an able and committed politician enjoys a long term of office, his or her role in the policy process can be very important, a phenomenon we observe within these different countries.
We also see here a connection to the international dimensions of change. Within the EU, committed politicians can pursue their goals not only domestically but also at the European level. The committed have included Italian socialists like Ruffolo (p.348) as well as Christian Democrats or Conservatives like Topfer or Patten and liberals like Winsemius or Nijpels. Other members of the same party or ideological grouping may have occupied the post of environment minister without bringing the same sense of policy direction. Thus, the obvious way to account for this highly individualized feature of the role of politicians is by noting that political attitudes on the environment tend to cut across existing political and ideological tendencies.
We originally conjectured that the least ambiguous effects would come from international influences, including both the formal pressures for implementation and the more diffuse pressures coming from the international climate of opinion.
Implementation rates vary, as we have seen in our discussion of the problem. However, it is equally clear that there is no country that has been without problems of implementation. The UK provides an interesting example at this point. Although its rhetoric is that it is an assiduous implementer of EU policy once it has been agreed, even if it contested the formulation of the policy in the first place, it is striking that it has been involved in a number of serious disputes over implementation, ranging from the bathing waters and environmental impact assessment directives to issues where the actual implementation of the policy did not accord with what was envisaged by the negotiating parties at the time, as with the large combustion plant directive. We might think from the variance that length of EU membership was an important factor, but though Germany and the Netherlands, long-standing members, have relatively good records of implementation, the same cannot be said for Italy, an equally long-standing member.
In the cases of both Germany and the UK, difficulties of implementation are in part related to state-related factors such as administrative traditions or existing policy paradigms. This suggests that there is no linear pattern of policy development reinforced by international pressures. Instead, it may well be a disadvantage, given the international pressures, for a country to have been early in the development of an environmental policy strategy when that strategy is out of accord with prevalent international currents of opinion.
It is none the less revealing that the institutionalization of international environmental policy within the EU has created a form of interactive dynamics, involving national and European levels. Given the importance of decisions taken within the Council of Ministers, the dual position of environment ministers, both as members of their own government and as participants in the Environment Council, has also provided an opportunity for policy championing by committed southern politicians. The pressure coming from the EU for higher environmental standards has provided a bargaining counter for disputes within their own political systems. A good example is provided by the way in which, in the 1980s, Tritsis in Greece was able to use EU environmental policy as an argument for securing greater prominence for environmental measures by the Greek government. Similarly, Ruffolo was (p.349) able to draw upon the international climate of opinion in his campaign to have the environment taken more seriously in Italian politics.
If we consider these various elements of convergence together, we can see that international influences play a key role, but they are by no means the only sort of element at work. The international influences are diffused through formal processes of implementation, but they also arise from less formal means of diffusion such as climates of opinion among internationally mobile policy elites. These influences combine with domestic sources of change that incline policy systems towards convergence. The increase in pollution from consumption relative to production, for example, itself a product of rising affluence, is something that is observable in all six countries. Moreover, certain common features of social and political structure, such as the position of farmers in the economy and the political system, will reproduce a common pattern of political contestation.
On the other hand, the persisting variations from country to country, even allowing for differences in level of economic development, are considerable. Such differences among the six countries include: variation in the willingness to pursue stringent standards of environmental protection; variations in the willingness to experiment with new policy instruments; differences in the support from public opinion for environmental protection; and differences in the attitudes of key groups. These differences in turn lead to a differential ambition to take a lead role in international efforts to control pollution. Thus, just as international measures, particularly those from the EU, could lead to pressure for changes in domestic policy arrangements and strategies, so domestic sources of policy can lead to some countries seeking to use international institutions to achieve their own goals. Just as society-related influences are mediated through political relationships, so international influences have to be mediated through individual state and political structures. Multi-level governance is not uniform multi-level governance. Europe will still enjoy, or suffer, its diversity, even in its increasing unity. (p.350)