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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 20:91–104.


The Environmental Policy of the European Union and the Participation
of Nongovernmental Organisations


The Importance of the Environmental Policy of the European Union

Why do we take up the issue of the environmental policy the EU pursues? It can be approached simultaneously from two directions. It can be approached partly from the side of the accession negotiations currently in progress, and partly from the direction of the globalising world.

Hungary, similarly to several Central and East European countries, submitted its application for accession to the European Union. Among the numerous preconditions of our admission we also have to adopt the environmental policy of the Union including its legal norms as well as their implementation. To meet this requirement naturally we have to know the current environmental policy of the Union and the planned trends of progress and development. It was the acknowledgement of the adoption of the legal norms and the authenticity of our promises for eliminating our shortcomings that the Environmental Chapter was temporarily closed on 1 June 2001 during the course of the accession talks.

The adoption of the related acquis and its subsequent practical implementation influence the thinking of the domestic legislators and those who implement the legal norms. Consequently domestic legislation will be harmonised with that of the Union even in areas where there are no specific demands for regulation because no acquis was produced in relation to the given topic.

During the course of accession the protection of our domestic natural values should enjoy special importance. For this purpose those shortcomings of the acquis should also be known that may have hidden dangers for these natural values. Hungary is home of several natural rarities, that have never existed on the territory of the Union, or have become extinct due to enhanced industrial and agricultural activities and environmental injuries. We have to assure their proper protection and for this purpose we may have to ask derogation from the requirements of another legal area, or have to make a proposal concerning the environmental acquis after accession.

In our globalising world naturally one could not disregard the EU even if we did not have accession negotiations and if we did not want to become a Member State. Currently the European Union is a key actor on world stage, hence its deeds and actions influence all those countries it gets into contact with in some way or another. It is particularly true in the case of closer cooperation, such as economic relations.


Development of environmental policy in the European Union

Protection of the environment

The consideration of environmental protection usually appears in the legislation of countries as a consequence of increasing environmental pollution. It was not different in the countries of the European Union either. With the appearance of environmentalist movements several countries of the European Community introduced rules of various levels and strictness for the protection of the environment. Subsequently the differences of implementation and range functioned as factors distorting competition in common trade.

Countries applying stricter rules temporarily got into a disadvantage in competition as they could produce their goods only at a higher cost because of the environmental investments. Looking at it from the other side it is the principle of the ‘free flow of goods’, constituting one of the basic pillars of the existence of the European Community that is violated if certain countries ban the import of some goods due to environmental reasons.

Thus it was this two-way process that had primarily made the creation of Community legal norms necessary for the protection of the environment1, that later on became a competitive advantage for companies successfully implementing them, because investments into material and energy efficiency became cost- reducing factors in the long run, and parallel to the development of environmental consciousness of the population the market share of environment-friendly goods could grow.

International processes have also exercised and continue to exercise an influence on the environmental policy of the Union besides the interests of the internal market. In the field of environmental protection one of the first steps was the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, the closing declaration of which spoke about the necessity of a common vision and the development of common principles. Not much after the Conference, in 1973 the Environmental Action Programme of the European Union was born as the first document of the intention of common action. It was this Programme that called the public opinion of the Union for the first time to the numerous ecological problems caused by economic development, further on, it challenged the set of values of consumer society.

The Environmental Action Programme proved to be the first in a series, followed by five others up to now, the most recent one was passed by the Union in 2002. The first four Action Programmes actually covered two main areas: they made recommendations for the development of environmental legislation, and offered assistance to the already existing environmental projects.

The legislation related to various areas and sectors undergo gradual development until they are included in the supreme document of the Union, in the Community Treaty. Environmental issues were included in it as a separate Environmental Chapter in 1987. The aim of the Chapter is to preserve the quality of the environment, to protect and improve it; to protect human health; to carefully and rationally use natural resources. It has proposed various means to cure environmental problems that appear on national, regional and international levels.


The cause of the environment has been developing in the international arena as well, which was partly a consequence of the appearance of environmental problems on global level. The UN organised the first Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, its official name was “UN Conference on Environment and Development”2 The Fifth Environment Action Programme of the European Union was launched in the following year.

It was not merely the protection of the environment, but already sustainable development that figured in the forefront of the Action Programme, mirroring international processes.

Sustainable development wishes to handle the issues of the environment, the economy and of society jointly so that the satisfaction of current needs should not endanger the satisfaction of the needs of future generations. Several definitions of sustainable development were born, and as a sign of a lack of agreement many people wrongly understand sustainable economic growth under this heading. They mean quantity instead of quality.

As the environmental issues are inseparably linked to the issues of the economy and society, therefore their handling as such does not solve the environmental problems. In view of this realisation the Action Programme set as its aim to integrate environmental considerations into policies of the various sectors. In this spirit industry, energy industry, transport, agriculture, and tourism (should) have to consider environmental interests as well when they promote their own development.

A further aim of the Action Programme was to share responsibility for environmental issues. As the problem has grown beyond the competency of the state and has been increasingly affecting the population, cooperation between the governments, the productive sectors and civil society has become necessary.

Two principles were put into the focus of the Action Programme: the principle that the pollutant shall pay, and the principle of precaution. Looking at the first principle from the angle of practice it means that it is the originator of environmental problem who has to pay for preventing or curing it, whereas in the spirit of the second one those acts should be avoided that may cause environmental problems.

The Action Programme had four kinds of means for the realisation of its aims. Beyond legislation it used the means of the market, and also applied financial and other types of support.

The new basic treaty of the European Union, the Amsterdam Treaty, was signed in 1997 and entered into force on 1 May 1999. Meeting the requirements of sustainable development already figured among the requirements of that document. Extending the contents of the Fifth Environment Action Programme the Treaty ruled also for the integration of environmental considerations into sectoral policies. Further on it ruled that impact study should be made in the case of proposals and developments that may have an effect on the environment. The growth of the importance of environmental issues is also indicated by the fact that the European Parliament was given the right to veto in the field of environmental questions.

The Cardiff Process

Though it was named after the next summit of the heads of state and government of the European Union, the starting point of the Cardiff Process was the Summit held in Luxembourg in 1997.

Next year it was decided by the Summit of the heads of state and government held in Cardiff, Wales, that environmental considerations and sustainable development would be kept in view in the future when the strategic documents of the European Council are elaborated. Consequently every council of a sector was supposed to shape its own documents accordingly.

The next step of the process was the Helsinki Summit held in 1999, where three resolutions of key importance were passed. It was ruled that the strategies of councils for sectors, taking environmental aspects into consideration, and the draft of the Strategy for Sustainable Development of the European Union were to be completed by the Gothenburg Summit, further on, it was stated that sustainable development was to be one pillar of the Sixth Environment Action Programme of the European Union.

The Gothenburg Summit closed the six-month period of the Union under the presidency of Sweden in late June 2001. The European Council, and the heads of state and government of the EU passed several important resolutions in that Summit, though hopes attached to the Summit were not fully realised. At the meeting it was decided not to launch a new process for the assertion of sustainable development but that the Lisbon Process, aiming at the coordination of economic and social considerations and already in progress would be extended over environmental questions. It was this process that was supposed to lay the foundations of the future Strategy for Sustainable Development of the Union.

The leaders of Member States also decided on striving to achieve a bigger sectoral integration of policies; Strategic Environmental Study was made compulsory in the case of major proposals of the Union; it was laid down as an expectation that Member States should elaborate national strategies for sustainable development and the Commission was called to create indicators of sustainability. Further on, it was resolved to monitor the changes of issues annually and the results achieved and failures would be discussed at the spring summits.

Strategy for Sustainable Development

The European Commission prepared the draft of the Strategy for Sustainable Development of the Union by the spring of 2001 which was to be discussed by the leaders of Member States at the Gothenburg Summit. Due to the delays of the Commission and of the Swedish presidency little time was left for the Member States to implement a process of profound assessment, and perhaps this was one of the reasons why ultimately the document passed by the heads of state and government in late June 2001 was a significantly abridged variant, containing fewer aims of the draft presented by the Commission.

The Commission had been working on another important strategic document, the Sixth Environment Action Programme as well, parallel to the Strategy for Sustainable Development, striving to coordinate the two materials as much as possible. The Strategy spelt out long-term goals, whereas the Action Programme contained relatively shorter-term and more exact tasks. The Strategy for Sustainable Development defined six key areas of action, on the basis of the most urgent problems. The six areas were the problem of climate change and the use of clean energies, health care, the management of natural resources, poverty and the problem of social exclusion, ageing society and other demographic processes, mobility (transport), the use of land and regional development. The aims were related to transport, energy, agriculture, industry, fishing, and also issues of the internal market, economy and finances.

The Barcelona Summit

The issue of sustainable development seemed to obtain greater impetus at last at the Gothenburg Summit, but the process was halted at the Summit held in Barcelona in the spring of 2002. No resolution was made, objective set, or agreement reached in several such areas the solution of which was expected from that particular Summit. Thus there was no progress made in the issue of energy tax with an environmental aim, in the strategic environmental study of the proposals of the various sectors, in supplementing the Lisbon Process with environmental considerations, or in rulings for sectoral environmental integration. No resolution was passed on the reform that was supposed to make prices of certain products and services to reflect their environmental effects in the future. Meanwhile the condition of the environment further degraded on the territory of the European Union and the Union seemed to lose its leading role in issues of sustainable development.

The European Union and its Member States were blamed by many for not having ratified the Kyoto Protocol created in 1997, though the efforts of the Union exercised after the United States announced that it had not wished to ratify the Protocol, were appreciated. The United States still maintains that decision saying that it wished to introduce far more effective solutions for slowing down and stopping the process of climate change than the ones stipulated by the Protocol. Other states however, perhaps due to the mediation of the Union, ratified the Protocol within a short period of time, or at least they announced their intention to do so. Thus several of the candidate countries, including Hungary, have already ratified it, and Canada and Russia announced their intention to do so at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, after a long time of solicitations.

World Summit on Sustainable Development

The representatives of the European Union went to Johannesburg of the South African Republic, to the World Summit on Sustainable Development (or Earth Summit) held between 26 August and 4 September 2002, to take up a leading role and make the participants accept specific items during the course of talks. Unfortunately the end result shows that it has achieved outstanding results in its ability to get isolated instead of accomplishing its original mission.

Already cooperation among the Member States was not totally smooth, and there were further problems also concerning external cooperation. According to the opinion of civil organisations the Union proved to be more of an obstacle in several issues than a contributor making efforts to reach an agreement. The United States tried to strengthen this feeling in the delegations of countries, until finally the isolated Union, having got fed up with its role of being a drawback, rather laid down arms and let the Action Agenda be passed without concrete items, only to have an agreement finally reached. With that decision it fully handed over control over the events to the United States.

In two really tough issues the ultimate victory over which also filled the civil organisations with some sense of success, namely in issues of accountability, of the Multilateral Environmental Agreements and the relationships among the rules of international trade, the Union clearly shared the view of the United States, abandoning not only the group of G77, comprising the poorest countries, but also its own civil organisations.


The role of nongovernmental organisations in shaping the environmental policy of the EU

The actors

In the European Union assuring social participation is becoming an increasingly important principle of the elaboration of strategies and policies for sectors. This principle is gaining ground also in respect of environmental issues.

Within the Union eight major European green organisations, the so-called G8 (the green eight) play a key role in commenting on and shaping the environmental policy of the Union. These organisations are the following:

Birdlife International (www.birdlife.net)

Climate Network Europe (www.climnet.org)

European Environmental Bureau (www.eeb.org)

European Federation for Transport and Environment (www.t-e.nu)

Friends of Earth Europe (www.foeeurope.org)

Friends of Nature International (www.nfi.at)

Greenpeace International (www.greenpeace.org)

World Wide Fund for Nature (www.panda.org)

The afore-mentioned eight major green organisations have several member organisations in the Member States as well as in countries wishing to accede that also participate in the shaping of the Union environmental policy on local, national and international levels. Naturally several other organisations besides them make their voice heard in relation to the EU environmental policy.


The participation of nongovernmental organisations is variegated and complex in shaping the Union environmental policy. Activities take up several forms ranging from the theoretical plane to specific actions.

Opinions related to environmental policy


Commenting on the various sectoral policies, having environmental aspects, or on expressly environmental policies is one area where nongovernmental organisations may join the process. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) for instance publishes a list containing the most important demands set for the Member State taking up the role of presidency for the coming half year at the beginning of that period.

The organisation set the following expectations for the presidency of Denmark:

1. The Johannesburg Summit

In view of the responsibility for separating economic growth and the process of environmental degradation linkages should be created between the resolutions of Monterrey, Doha and Johannesburg in the framework of a ‘global agreement’. Further on, an agreement should be reached at the Summit on a precise action agenda that would specify deadlines and the means of implementation for every area.

2. Enlargement

A dialogue should be initiated between the EU institutions and the candidate countries in the interest of determining the guidelines of an environmentally and socially sustainable regional policy.

3. Reform of CAP

It is necessary to pass a declaration full of challenges at the Copenhagen Summit that would define the main principles and deadlines assuring the direction of the Common Agricultural Policy towards sustainability. The reform has to extend over the elimination of environmentally harmful subsidies, and has to push the development of the means for the rural areas promotion and of the means of environmental protection in agriculture.

4. Chemicals and herbicides

The Commission should be reminded of the Gothenburg resolution according to which a new policy of chemical materials has to be created before 2004, and for this purpose the process of legislation cannot suffer any further postponement. Further on, the Commission should be persuaded to make a proposal for the means assuring the reduction of the use of herbicides and chemicals before July 2003, and to complete the revision of guideline 91/414/EC in the interest of the protection of the environment and human health.

5. Reform of environmental finances

The minimum rules for taxing energy products should be passed within the framework of a guideline that would resemble the original Monti guideline proposed by the Commission in 1997. Further incentives should be approved so that the tax bases should be shifted from labour to natural resources, and environmentally harmful subsidies should be terminated.

6. Environmental responsibility

The competency of the proposed guideline should be broadened together with the list of hazardous activities capable of causing environmental damages (for instance polluting by genetically modified organisms). The principle of ‘strict responsibility’ should be insisted on, including the direct right of nongovernmental organisations to the administration of justice, the reversal of the burden of proof, and compulsory insurance to be prescribed.

7. Sustainable development

The all-round assertion of the environmental dimension has to be assured in the Lisbon Process, with special regard to giving all the necessary indicators in the report to come in next spring. The integration of environmental policy in sectors should be vigorously concentrated on in the work of the councils of ministers in the case of every decision and activity.

8. Genetically modified organisms

It is necessary to extend traceability and the rules of labelling to meat, eggs and milk products, originating from animals bred on genetically modified fodder. The Commission should be hindered in its effort to modify the No. 2001/18 guideline in order to legalise the illegal import of genetically modified organisms. The current moratorium should be maintained until clear and strict rules are not passed in the area of traceability, labelling and responsibility.

9. The Aarhus Agreement

A strong guideline should be passed that would consider that Agreement as a basis and not the upper limit in terms of access to environmental information and social participation related to environmental issues. The original proposal of the Commission and the proposed modifications of Parliament offer a good basis to it.

10. Packaging and its wastes

There should be full cooperation with the European Parliament for the achievement of its aim regarding the improvement of the environmental characteristics of packaging and that the production of packaging wastes should be hindered.

Dissemination of knowledge

The dissemination of knowledge also has a significant role in shaping environmental policy. The various conferences, seminars and information materials can be its media. As an example the project entitled “EU 12" can be mentioned, which was implemented under the coordination of the National Society of Conservationists with the participation of countries wishing to accede. Information packages were made in the framework of the project and trainings were held on the environmental policy of the EU. An assessment of the integration of environmental issues into sectors was also part of the project.

Another example was the joint conference of the European Environmental Bureau, the Regional Environmental Centre, the Milieukontakt Oost-Europa and the National Society of Conservationists, held on the relationship between EU enlargement and environmental protection. The conference held in November 2001 focused on three groups of issues. It dealt with the adoption of the environmental acquis of the EU, with the effect of the Common Agricultural Policy on candidate countries, and with dangers and possibilities related to the sustainability of the region.3


The nongovernmental organisations carry on more practical activities as well besides the dissemination of knowledge, in the interest of asserting their stand and opinion. Such lobbying sometimes takes the form of regularity, at other times that of individual cases.

On 31 January 2000 the eight major European nongovernmental organisations had the opportunity to discuss their stand with Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission. At that meeting the condition of the environment of the Union was discussed with special regard to the most problematic areas (such as waste management, soil and biodiversity); the issues of the management of resources and energy, including questions of efficiency; the need for the reform of such sectors like the Common Agricultural Policy, or transport was also on the agenda. The green organisations asked the Commission President to take up the popularisation of sustainable development on the level of the EU as well as on world stage, and to encourage the European Union to take a leading role in the struggle against climate change. The right of the population of the Union to a similar quality of life and to the administration of justice was also mentioned. Further on, the expectations included the improvement of access to various documents, the reform of the tax system as a result of which the resources should be the basis of taxation and not labour.

The European Commission, and the Directorate General for the Protection of the Environment within it actually regularly meet the green organisations of the Central and East European countries in order to listen to their opinion and comments related to the environmental aspects of accession and to its own environmental policy. The meetings are coordinated by the Regional Environmental Centre.


Campaigns mean an even more active participation than lobbying, they are announced for a given aim by one or more organisations. Such a campaign was for instance the ‘Let us make the Treaty greener’, conducted in the year 2000 during preparations for the Nice Treaty. Its demands included the official declaration of the right to a clean and healthy environment, a continuous and regular dialogue between the nongovernmental organisations and the European Commission, and the right to the administration of justice at the European Court. Further on, the green organisations asked for a qualified majority as a requirement of decision-making on issues related to environmental protection.

The ‘Realistic prices’ campaign, launched in 2002, demands the realisation of an efficient financial reform in which the government, the business sector and the society may equally and actively participate. A minimum 10% change of the tax base from labour to natural resources up to 2010 on the level of the Union as well as of the Member States also figures among the campaign demands. One of the major demands is the elimination or reform of subsidies harmful from an environmental point of view up to 2005. A further demand concerns issues of saving energy and its efficient use, and the financial incentives of environmental protection.


The most concrete form of expressing opinion related to environmental policy is represented by actions that are forms of pressure, attracting the greatest publicity.

The conference of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol was held in The Hague, Holland, in late 2000. The green organisations decided to build a symbolic dam in the interest of calling attention to the problem of climate change and of exercising pressure on the negotiating parties. Six thousand people participated in the action and fifty thousand sand bags were mobilised to the building of the 500 metre-long dam.

This meeting of the parties ended without result, therefore another conference was held in Bonn, Germany in July 2001 where the green organisations came forward with another action. This time a lifeboat was made of tiny wooden planks and everyone could write his or her message to a decision-maker participating in the talks. Three thousand people participated in this action and the thirty metre-long lifeboat was assembled from several thousand pieces of boards.

The Sixth Environment Action Programme

Participation of nongovernmental organisations in the preparation of the Sixth Environment Action Programme

The Environment Action Programme of the European Union up to 2010, the sixth already in a series of action programmes, was passed by the European Union in 2002. During the course of the preparations of the document entitled “Our Future, Our Choice” the Union strove to assure the broadest possible social participation in the current Member States as well as in the candidate countries. An opportunity was open to join already at the stage of planning and preparations (during the course of 2000).

Hungarian contribution

A group of Hungarian green organisations4, coordinated by the National Society of Conservationists, prepared its comments on the Fifth Environment Action Programme and their proposals for the Sixth one and sent them to the European Commission. The proposals comprised a broad area of issues: those that were most affected by enlargement, several topics related to sustainable development (such as Strategic Environmental Study, analyses of sustainability, consumer habits, social participation), tasks of the protection of nature and biodiversity (including concerns related to genetically modified organisms), the topics of energy and glasshouse gases, transport, waste management, issues of waters and sewage water, and certain regulatory tasks.

Participation of nongovernmental organisations

Based on proposals the European Commission prepared the draft of the Sixth Environment Action Programme which was discussed in a ministerial conference in June 2000. At the meeting held at the Regional Environmental Centre of Szentendre the ministers of candidate countries also participated besides the ministers of Member States responsible for the environment.

Next came another round of social debate that was coordinated by the Regional Environmental Centre of Szentendre among the civil organisations of the Central and East European countries.

The civil organisations had an opportunity all along the finalisation of the Sixth Environment Action Programme to share their opinion with the European Commission preparing it, and with the Council of the Ministers of the Environment of the Union afterwards. For instance, the nongovernmental organs of the candidate countries could meet the Council of Ministers in March 2001 and could share their comments with them.

The Sixth Environment Action Programme

Finally the Sixth Environment Action Programme contained general tasks as well as areas for concrete action.


General tasks

One of the very important tasks the Union faces is the promotion of the implementation of the existing acquis. Currently the condition of the environment has been continuously degrading in the Union, despite its several legal norms, which is attributable to a significant degree to a poor assertion of the contents of the legal norms. In this area the role of the European Court should be strengthened, the contents of the Aarhus Agreement should be applied (several countries have already acceded to it but for the time being the European Union has not), and the IMPEL Network should be operated.

A further important task is to see to it that environmental protection should not be a separate isolated sector, one among the numerous sectoral policies, but its points of consideration should be asserted in the set of values in other branches. This integration of the branches is intended to be achieved by strengthening the Cardiff Process.

Transforming market relations to become environment friendly is among the tasks a precondition of which is that prices should reflect environmental effects. In addition it is necessary to develop the commitment of the consumers, cooperation with the business sector, a termination of environmentally harmful subsidies, making the financial sector ‘greener’ and developing the system of common responsibility.

It is important to assure the right to information and social participation in environmental issues in the interest of changing the behaviour of the inhabitants and that they should be supplied with practical information in the interest of facilitating decision-making.

The Sixth Environment Action Programme mentions among the general tasks that regional development should be made greener, meaning that Strategic Environmental Studies should be prepared for plans, investments and developments related to the environment; that best practices should be applied in the field of regional developments; and that agrarian-environmental programmes should be made in the interest of improving agricultural land use.


Fields of action

The four key areas on which the Sixth Environment Action Programme concentrates were developed by long discussions.

One of the most important aims related to climate change is to reduce the emission of glasshouse gases.

In the area of biological diversity the programme aims at the reduction of dangers caused by pollutants, consideration of biodiversity, land use, and keeping in view anxieties related to genetically modified organisms.

In view of the protection of human health the creation of a non-toxic environment is an aim, together with sustainable water management, the improvement of the quality of the air, and the reduction of noise.

In view of the protection of natural resources the Sixth Environment Action Programme deals with the policies of the various sectors and also with waste management.


The position of the EU in the world

The Sixth Environment Action Programme also discusses what position the European Union occupies in the world regarding environmental issues and sustainable development. This group of issues is studied partly in relation to enlargement, and partly to answers given to international problems.

In view of enlargement it dwells upon issues of legal harmonisation and the implementation of law, on sustainable economic development, on the protection of the current standard of public transport, on issues and tasks of regional planning and on the enhancement of consciousness.

In the area of international roles it is integrating environmental issues into foreign policy and the international popularisation of environmental protection that figure among the objectives.

The Sixth Environment Action Programme of the European Union was passed during 2002.




The European Commission submitted its proposal explained in detail to the European Council in June 1971 so that Community legal norms for the protection of the environment may be produced.


It was here that the document entitled “Agenda 21" was born, and two Conventions that wished to cure certain global problems. One raised the issues of climate change, and the other the loss of biodiversity to an international level.


A summary of the conference can be found in the November 2001 issue of the monthly paper entitled “EU-Integráció – Környezetpolitika, környezetvédelem” (EU Integration – Environmental Policy, Protection of the Environment), published by the National Society of Conservationists. The publication is accessible on www.mtvsz.hu as well.


Emission Association, Energy Club, Air Working Group, Hungarian Transport Club, Hungarian Ornithological Association, the National Society of Conservationists, Ecological Institute for Sustainable Development, WWF Hungary.