Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Special Report




1. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee carried out an inquiry during the 1999­2000 Session on the integration of environment into EU policies and the Helsinki European Council. The Government thanks the Environmental Audit Committee for its thorough and helpful report which addresses important issues concerning the contribution of the policies and programmes of Government to the EU's approach to sustainable development. The inquiry particularly focused on the impact of the new treaty provisions on environmental integration; the procedures within the Commission for ensuring that environmental issues are addressed with respect to policy development; the approach adopted by other Council formations to the setting of sectoral strategies for integration of environmental and sustainable development considerations into their policies as required by the Cardiff, Vienna and Cologne European Councils; the lessons learned from the Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme; and the requirements for a Sixth Environmental Action Programme. The inquiry looked at the issue of a proposed EU sustainable development strategy. The Committee published the Report of its inquiry on 25 November 1999.

2. This memorandum is the Government's formal response to the Environmental Audit Committee's Report. The text follows the order of the recommendations made in the report, which are reproduced in [italics] throughout the response.

The case for environmental policy integration

    i    The European Environment Agency's recent State and Outlook report confirms that despite more than twenty­five years of Community environment regulation, general environmental quality in the EU is not recovering significantly and in some areas is actually worsening.

    ii    EU policies in major economic sectors such as agriculture, transport and energy have often been incompatible with the EU's environmental objectives. For example, EU subsidies have supported environmentally damaging activities such as the drainage of wildlife­rich wetlands for intensive agriculture or the depletion of fish stocks.

    iii  Although the EU has been good at developing strong, end­of­pipe regulation it has less leverage over the "driving force sectors of environmental damage". We agree that the emphasis now needs to shift towards creating a more integrated framework for a preventative approach to environmental protection and we conclude that the European Council, Council of Ministers, Commission and individual Member States need to coordinate their policies and working practices under strong leadership and strategic direction to achieve real change.

    iv    The Committee believes that the integration of environmental policy into those sectors in which pressure is put on the environment is vital to address the root causes of environmental damage. Environmental policy integration (EPI) is as important a tool for achieving sustainable development as strong environmental protection regulation.

3. The European Environment Agency's State and Outlook report, Environment in the European Union at the turn of the century, concluded that, while action in some areas has yielded benefits, more needs to be done if the EU is to make progress towards sustainability. The report highlights concerns that the environmental effects of growth in consumption and traffic are undermining gains from improved environmental regulation. While these trends need to be tackled, the Government notes that the report recognises that environmental regulation has produced significant benefits, for example reductions in transboundary air pollution, decreases in the number of heavily polluted rivers, and significant reductions in emissions of ozone depleting substances. The Government also recognises, as does the Commission in its Global Assessment of the Fifth Action Programme on the Environment, that many such measures have yet to yield their full effect. Over the last two and a half years to September 1999, around 70 environmental measures have been adopted. Nearly all measures contain a period of up to two or so years for implementation by the Member States and many contain much longer transitional periods relating to particular circumstances.

4. The Government agrees that, in order to address these problems, EU policies in major economic sectors must be compatible with our environmental as well as other sustainable development objectives, and that greater integration of environmental policy into those sectors is vital to address the root causes of environmental damage. However, further gains from traditional environmental policy are likely to be limited and the Government therefore agrees with the Committee that this needs to be supplemented by action to ensure environmental considerations are fully taken into account in all areas of EU policy. The United Kingdom is one of the leading advocates of environmental integration and sustainable development within the European Union. This was why the Government launched the Cardiff initiative during the UK Presidency of the EU, inviting all Council formations, starting with Agriculture, Energy and Transport, to prepare strategies for integrating environmental considerations and sustainable development into their policies, and to report on progress via indicators. We have encouraged subsequent Presidencies to take forward the integration process. In particular, we contributed to the conclusions of the Helsinki Summit, which asked the Commission to prepare a proposal for a long­term strategy dovetailing policies for economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development to be presented to the European Council in June 2001 (the "EU sustainable development strategy").


    v    As we have concluded from our studies of the UK greening government initiative, high level political leadership is vital to the success of this pan­administrative challenge. Leadership in the EU context is more complex and must be pursued through effective Treaty provisions, the European Council, the Council of Ministers (in all its formations), and individual Member States as well as the Commission. This would be supported by assessment and regular reporting by the European Parliament which could include European Parliament committees calling Commissioners and Presidency Ministers to account across the board.

5. The Government agrees that a high level of political leadership is essential in all the EU institutions, including the European Parliament. Although the Commission has sole right of initiative for legislative proposals, responsibility for ensuring that environmental and sustainable development considerations are taken into account in the decision on new proposals ultimately rests with the Council itself and, in the case of co­decided legislation, also with the European Parliament. It is for this reason that Heads of Government invited nine formations of the Council of Ministers to develop strategies for environmental integration and sustainable development within their own policy areas. It is for the European Parliament to decide on any procedures for monitoring progress. This could be done without any changes to Treaties.

The Amsterdam Treaty

    vi    The Committee considers Article 6 of the Amsterdam Treaty to be a major step forward in promoting environmental policy integration. However, the Committee is concerned that this article alone may not adequately promote environmental integration and will need to be complemented by specific provisions included in the legislative basis of individual policies. The Committee recommends that the Government keeps the need for further Treaty revision along these lines under review in the light of an assessment, in due course, of the impact of Article 6.

6. The Government agrees on the importance of Article 6 of the Amsterdam Treaty which requires that environmental protection requirements must be integrated into the definition and implementation of Community policies and activities in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development in accordance with Article 2 of the Treaty. The Government agrees that this and other changes introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty represented a major advance on the earlier provisions which confined the environmental integration requirement to the environmental section of the Treaty where it was at risk of being overlooked. However, while the Government will keep the need for further Treaty changes under review, it is not at present persuaded of the need to apply a similar principle to individual Treaty headings. Unless this was achieved consistently throughout the Treaty, it could undermine the value of Article 6, by implying that environmental integration was less important in some policy areas than in others. Article 6 should not be seen in isolation from other changes introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty which included the recognition of sustainable development as an overarching task of the Community and one of the objectives of the EU.

The Cardiff Process

    vii  We acknowledge the complexity of environment integration at both a national and European level. We note the progress which has been made to date in the EU and the positive impetus provided by the UK's Presidency. The Committee believes that high level political leadership is vital in order to achieve integration and urges the Government to ensure that integration remains on the agenda over forthcoming presidencies.

    viii  The Committee supports the development of sectoral integration strategies as envisaged by the Cardiff Council Summit as a practical means of encouraging environmental policy integration and achieving recognition of the issue at Heads of Government level. The preparation of such strategies by all Ministerial Councils is a key means of ensuring wide ownership of the issue.

7. The Government welcomes the Committee's recognition of the positive impetus given to the process of environmental integration by the UK Presidency of the EU. We consider it important that the related issues of environmental integration and sustainable development are kept high on the political agenda. As initiators of the Cardiff Process, UK Ministers and officials have worked with successive Presidencies, especially the Finnish Presidency, to maintain momentum. In this context we pressed for the conclusion of the Helsinki European Council that the completion of sectoral strategies should be followed by their immediate implementation. Equally importantly, the Summit concluded that regular evaluation, follow up and monitoring must be undertaken so that the strategies can be adjusted and deepened. The Government will continue to work with the Presidency and the Commission to further this process, and to develop appropriate indicators.

Commission support

    ix    President Prodi has announced the formation of two sub­groups of Commissioners, one to look at growth, competitiveness, employment and sustainable development and a second to look at external affairs. Environment Commissioner Wallström will be involved in both groups which may be a helpful boost to integration. The Committee particularly welcomes the establishment of these initiatives on cross­cutting issues and believes that environmental integration and mechanisms to promote sustainable development across all Directorates General should be prominent in their remits.

    x    It is clear that both individual directorates and Councils tend to be very focused on their own subject areas. Mr Meacher told the Committee that he thought that getting the directorates to talk to each other in the preparation of policy was the single most important area of improvement.

    xi    At Cardiff, Heads of Government endorsed the principle that major Commission policy proposals should be accompanied by an appraisal of their environmental impact. A Commission review of the existing system showed it needed revision because it was weak as a result of its narrow scope and there were difficulties in attributing "green stars" because limited information was available on the environmental impact of proposals.

    xii  The Committee recognises that it is for the Commission to propose a "substantial and effective" system for conducting and demonstrating environmental policy appraisals. However, we think that it is within the ambit of the Council, and therefore the initiative of Member States, to galvanise the Commission's efforts by establishing its own approach to "checks and balances" for policies that need environmental appraisal but where the work has not been done.

    xiii  The Committee welcomes the Commission's attempts to reform its policy making and management in order to promote EPI. The Committee has welcomed the Government's own efforts to provide guidance on policy appraisal and the environment and there may be lessons from that process that could assist the Commission.

8. The Government supports the proposed Commission reforms, but notes that Commission organisation is a matter for the President. The Commission President is committed to more open ways of working, and better communication between DGs. The changes that the Commission President is making should create an opportunity for more joined up working. They should fit in well with the integration and sustainable development process, one of President Prodi's priorities. The Commission has recognised that coherence of policy making is an issue which needs to be addressed.

9. The Government supports the view that major Commission policy proposals should be accompanied by an appraisal of their environmental impact. It is not yet clear how the Commission's new system (which will replace the green star system) will operate. Whatever system is devised, it will only succeed if the whole of the Commission has a commitment to the process. We note the Committee's view that it is open to the Member States to galvanise the Commission's efforts by establishing its own approach where work has not been done. In principle the Government can sympathise with the Committee. However, efforts by one Member State to redress the failings of the Commission are unlikely to command the desired level of attention from the Council. There are also resource and practical constraints in one Member State seeking to carry out appraisals of Commission proposals. We are therefore of the view that our objective should be to seek to influence the Commission in devising and applying a fresh scheme.

An EU Sustainable Development Strategy

    xiv    The Committee recommends that the Government support the development of an overarching EU Sustainable Development Strategy to combat the strongly compartmentalised EU structures of Treaty provisions, Council formations and Directorates General.

    xv    The Committee believes that any EU Sustainable Development Strategy should be more than a general statement of principles. The Committee considers it important that the Government pushes for a strategy for action rather than guidance, containing quantitative targets, timetables and headline indicators against which progress can be monitored.

    xvi    The Committee commends the Government in its efforts to promote the UK approach to indicators in the EU.

    xvii  We support the Government view that an EU sustainable development strategy cannot be the work of one Council or Directorate General and that any strategy must be owned and implemented across all Council formations to be effective. The Committee believes that the Government should strongly oppose any moves to allocate responsibility for developing an overall strategy to DGXI which does not have the necessary overarching authority or political clout. The development of a sustainable development strategy will involve protracted and intensive negotiations between almost all of the Commission Directorates General. Strong, central political leadership from the President and Heads of Government in Council is therefore essential to directing the process.

    xviii  The Government should suggest that the Commissioner Group on Growth, Competitiveness, Employment and Sustainable Development prepares a draft strategy, serviced by a new Sustainable Development Task Force, attached to the President's office. The six­monthly European Councils should keep the strategy under regular review. Council Summits must take action when such reviews demand - passing the 'green baton' must not descend into passing the green buck.

10. The Government strongly supported the development of a cross-cutting "EU sustainable development strategy" in the run up to the Helsinki European Council. The Summit requested the Commission to prepare a proposal for an "EU sustainable development strategy". In our view the strategy should be a framework document grounded in key principles of sustainable development such as those adopted in the Rio Declaration in 1992. It should draw on the work of the sectoral councils but should be compact enough to have resonance for members of the public and leaders alike, identifying key priorities. The extent to which it will be possible or appropriate to agree quantitative targets and timetables over and above those which the Helsinki Council called to be included in sectoral strategies remains to be seen.

11. The Government agrees that indicators are an important tool for sustainable development and should be a feature of the "EU sustainable development strategy". Since the publication of the Environmental Audit Committee's Report, the Commission has adopted a Report on Environmental and Integration Indicators to Helsinki Summit which included a preliminary list of environmental headline indicators.

12. The Government considers that an "EU sustainable development strategy" would affect all formations of the Council, and that it cannot be the work of one Council formation or Directorate General. We agree with the Committee that strong political leadership and interdisciplinary teamworking will be required within the Commission. We understand that this work will be carried out as an inter­service exercise under the supervision of staff reporting directly to President Prodi. This is in line with the thrust of the Committee's views.

The Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Plan

    xix  The Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme (EAP) acknowledges that the EU has made progress in environment legislation but has achieved only modest success in integrating the environment into other policy areas. It is far from achieving its broader objective of sustainable development as reflected in the Amsterdam Treaty.

    xx  The Committee looks forward to the publication of the Global Assessment of the 5th EAP which will contribute to our audit of developments at the EU level. The Government should seek to ensure that any learning points which emerge from this exercise are addressed.

13. The Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme was adopted by the Commission on 24 November 1999. The Commission has invited comments by 14 April 2000. The result of this consultation will be used to inform the framing of the sixth environment action programme which the Helsinki Summit invited the Commission to prepare by the end of 2000. We are still considering the Assessment but as we said in our memorandum to the Committee, the Government intends to make a full contribution to the consultation process. The Presidency also plans to adopt Council Conclusions on the Global Assessment at a forthcoming Council.

A sixth Environmental Action Programme

    xxi  The Committee welcomes the Government's support for a Sixth Environmental Action Programme (EAP). The Fifth EAP was focussed on integration but, although a Commission document, had little ownership outside DGXI and had little impact on other sectors. A Sustainable Development Strategy should therefore provide the overarching direction with a Sixth EAP providing the environmental priorities and the starting point for negotiations on the balance to be struck in the sustainable development strategy. The Committee believes that such a plan is crucial if an overarching EU Sustainable Development Strategy is to have a strong environmental backbone:

      - we believe that there should be both an EU sustainable development strategy and a Sixth EAC (focussed on the environment) with targeted timetables linked by the sectoral integration strategies;

      - it is essential that the Government pushes for high level agreement about how the range of EU integration initiatives fit together and can be managed and led;

      - to avoid confusion, there needs to be clarity regarding how a Sixth EAC, sectoral integration strategies and a sustainable development strategy would be linked, and which should provide the principal framework; and

      - the Government should ask the Commission to produce a Communication clarifying these relationships.

    v    Member States should be required to develop their own action plans to take forward the various strands of the overarching EU approach as it emerges.

14. As mentioned above, following the adoption of the Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, the Commission was invited by the Helsinki European Council to prepare a proposal for a Sixth Environmental Action Programme by the end of this year.

15. The Government agrees with EU Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallström that the Sixth Environment Action Programme should be a short focused document that concentrates on strategic priorities. Given the emphasis in the Fifth Environment Action Programme on the integration of environmental considerations into other policy areas, further thought will be needed on the relationship between the Sixth EAC and the "EU sustainable development strategy". The Government agrees with the Committee that it will be important to avoid confusion on this relationship and the relationship between the "EU strategy" and the Council strategies for the various sectors covered by the Cardiff process. The Commission's Global Assessment of the Fifth EAC indicates that the Commission sees the Programme as one of the pillars of the strategy, addressing key environmental priorities alongside the strategies of the main economic sectors and delivering the environmental policy measures which are essential for sustainability.

16. In parallel with this activity at EU level, all Member States, at UNGASS, committed themselves to completing their own sustainable development strategies by 2002. These strategies must be for Member States themselves to determine in the light of their individual circumstances and priorities. There will obviously be common themes because we share common objectives - not least as a result of our shared international obligations. Member States are at different stages in the preparation of their sustainable development strategies. Some, like the UK which has already published its strategy, are further advanced than the EU. We aim to influence the emerging EU strategy accordingly and hope that other Member States will support our approach as they develop their own strategies.

Sectoral Integration Strategies

    vi    The Committee welcomes the Government's co­ordination of UK input into the development of the EU Council strategies and notes the DETR's efforts to liaise with leading departments.

    vii  The Committee commends the Government for initiating a joint Council meeting but recognises its limitations as described by the Environment Minister. We recommend that the Government continues to promote innovative methods of joint working between Councils on crosscutting issues such as EPI and sustainable development.

    viii  We have identified a contradiction in the evidence presented by the Government on the key relationship between the Environment Council and the other Councils and their development of sectoral strategies to integrate environmental considerations. The Government agreed that the Environment Council has a role to play but was equally clear that the Council formations are autonomous and tend to "get very focused on their own subject matter". There is no current mechanism for involving the Environment Council if improved co­ordination is felt to be necessary with other Councils. The Committee requests that the Government clarifies what role it feels the Environment Council could play.

17. The Environment Council has an obvious interest in the work of the other Council formations on the integration of environmental considerations and sustainable development into their policy areas. However, it is not constitutionally in a position to supervise the work of the other Council formations or determine what those other Council formations should do. This is because, technically, there is only one Council which meets in different formations. No one Council formation is superior to any other and a decision in one is formally a decision of the Council as a whole not of one particular formation.

18. However, the Government does believe that the Environment Council can influence the development of thinking in other Council formations. This could be through for example the innovative ways of working to which the Committee refers. These might include inviting the President of one Council formation to attend or address a meeting of another, as we did under the UK Presidency. The Government will continue to promote such innovations.

Content and Quality

    ix    The Committee believes that the sectoral strategies invited to date reflect the priority areas for integration.

    x    The Committee is concerned that the sectoral integration strategies produced to date have been bland statements of intent suggesting little action or timetables for action. The Government should work to ensure that the Helsinki conclusions respect the framework agreed at the Cardiff Council in 1998 and refer to the need for the Councils to set themselves targets, timetables and indicators.

    xi    We think that it is important that the sectoral integration strategies share a common format so that they can be compared and contrasted. The Committee is pleased that the Government has actively supported the Finnish framework which encourages such an approach. We will be using the Finnish criteria to assess the quality of the strategies.

    xii  The Committee believes that the Government should press for all Councils to prepare integration strategies in the long term to ensure that all areas of EU policy address the issue. In the short to medium term the Committee supports the Government view that there is a need to develop robust strategies in priority crosscutting areas. The Committee accepts that it would be unwieldy for the other 14 Councils to work simultaneously on new strategies and endorses the staggered approach which has been adopted so far.

19. The Government notes the Committee's assessment of the strategies but reiterates the point that the development of sustainable development strategies is not an easy process. For understandable reasons, related in part to the subject matter concerned, some Council formations have found the exercise easier than others. However, the Government believes it is important to recognise the value of the process itself of developing sustainable development strategies. We consider that if the principles of environmental integration and sustainable development are to gain ground, it is important that all Council formations develop a commitment to and ownership of the process. The Government believes that the reports to Helsinki represent a significant step towards building this political will. However, it will be important to ensure that the momentum is maintained, to capitalise on these first steps.

20. The Helsinki European Council also recognised the need to maintain this momentum. The Council concluded that the completion of sectoral strategies should be followed by their immediate implementation; and that regular evaluation, follow­up and monitoring must be undertaken so that the strategies can be adjusted and deepened. The Government welcomes this recognition of the dynamic nature of the Cardiff process. We will be seeking to foster these developments in our bilateral contacts with other Member States.

21. The Government agrees that all relevant Council formations should ultimately produce sustainable development strategies, as provided for in the Conclusions of the 1998 Cardiff European Council. However, it is important now to focus effort and resources on the preparation of an "EU sustainable development strategy". As the Committee notes, sectors invited to date represent the priority areas for environmental integration and sustainable development. The Helsinki Summit concluded that the Council should bring this work to a conclusion and "¼submit to the European Council in June 2001 comprehensive strategies with the possibility of including a timetable for further measures and a set of indicators for these sectors." The Government expects that sustainable development strategies will be prepared for the other sectors in due course.

Monitoring and Reporting

    xiii  From a UK perspective, the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee has a specific remit to scrutinise European Union documents and to consider any general issues arising from them. We would draw the European initiative on policy integration to the attention of that committee.

    xiv  The Committee [EAC] recommends that Member States should report their progress on making a contribution to an EU sustainable development strategy against a set of European indicators to the European Environment Agency (EEA). The Committee would then like to see the EEA present a consolidated report on the progress of the EU as a whole for regular assessment and review by national and European parliaments and the European Council.

    xv  Other institutions and bodies such as the Court of Auditors and the Commission's own auditors should monitor the environmental impact of the spending of Community funds as well as the probity, economy, efficiency and effectiveness of that expenditure.

22. The Government agrees that Member States should report their progress on making a contribution to an EU sustainable development strategy against a set of European indicators. The development of a comprehensive set of sustainable development indicators and an associated set of headline indicators is essential for the purposes of monitoring progress. Such indicators have yet to be agreed for the EU. It is essential that the various indicator initiatives are co­ordinated. Once these indicators have been adopted, they must be used to monitor and report progress. We agree with the Committee that a report based on indicators should be prepared on progress of the EU as a whole, but recognise this would have to be a collaborative production by Eurostat and the European Environment Agency.

23. As we said in oral evidence, the Court of Auditors may submit observations on specific questions at any time in response to a request from Community institutions. The powers of the Court of Auditors may be considered at the forthcoming Intergovernmental Conference. The UK is willing to consider sensible changes to its powers.

The Helsinki Summit

    xvi  The Committee welcomes the Helsinki Summit as the first opportunity to discuss several key integration issues at Heads of Government level. The Committee acknowledges the pressure on the agenda presented by issues such as enlargement and the Inter­Governmental Conference but believes that the UK Government should press for discussion on integration and not just accept pre­cooked conclusions. We believe that there are important links between the integration process and other parts of the Summit agenda such as enlargement and enabling accession countries to meet the environmental acquis.

24. As the Committee has acknowledged, the key issues of enlargement and the IGC exerted considerable pressure on the Helsinki agenda. There was therefore no time for a substantive discussion by Heads of Government on integration. UK officials were, however, able to make a constructive contribution to the Helsinki conclusions' language, which provides the political impetus for further progress on integration.

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