European Affairs

Despite Friction, U.S. and EU Can Cooperate on the Environment     Print Email

European Commissioner for Environment

To judge from some media reports, the European Union and the United States would appear to be moving in completely opposite directions on environmental policy. There are plenty of examples, however, of how U.S.-EU cooperation has led to important successes.

At global level we have shown that we can achieve significant results when we work together. The Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer is one example.

Our cooperation can also be very effective on a regional basis. Together we helped to establish the Regional Environmental Centre for Central and Eastern Europe, which greatly helped to raise environmental awareness in the region.

Bilaterally, we have been cooperating for many years on air quality and on chemicals. We also worked well together on the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and President George Bush has now submitted the Convention to the Senate for ratification.

There are also, of course, areas of friction. Two of the most prominent areas of disagreement recently have been measures to alleviate climate change and the European Union's support for the so-called precautionary principle. The essence of this principle implies taking action in a given policy area even when scientific evidence is incomplete, but there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potential risks are big enough to require action.

In many ways this principle is simply common sense. If you smell smoke, you do not wait until your house is burning down before you tackle the cause.

The precautionary principle is a legitimate tool available to decision makers when faced with potentially harmful effects on the environment or on health, but when there is scientific uncertainty concerning the nature or extent of the risk. The prime responsibility of governments is to protect their citizens from such risks and to do their best to achieve a high level of protection.

It is also worth noting that Article 174 of the EC Treaty clearly states that action in the environmental field "shall be based on the precautionary principle."

But the precautionary principle is shrouded in misconceptions and misunderstandings. It is inaccurately linked to "green protectionism." Far from being a way of evading international obligations, particularly in the World Trade Organization, our use of the precautionary principle is fully consistent with our international obligations.

One of the main misunderstandings relates to the frequency with which we employ the precautionary principle in the European Union. We do not spend our days in Brussels, as some might think, in Machiavellian plotting to apply precaution to the detriment of U.S. businesses.

It was in part to dispel this misconception that the European Commission presented its Communication on the Precautionary Principle in February 2000. Our aim was to promote transparency in the light of public concern stemming from the "mad cow" disease and dioxin crises, to present a broader understanding of the European Union's position and to establish guidelines for the principle's application.

Of course, the precautionary principle is not an excuse for seeking zero risk, which can rarely be attained. In the vast majority of cases, the best that can be done is to manage and control risks.

I strongly believe that the precautionary principle is a sound policy and is above all necessary to alleviate public concern. We continue to work earnestly with other parties, including the United States, to improve mutual understanding of the concept.

The other major area of friction over the last year or so has been the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The European Union is committed to tackling climate change multilaterally through the Protocol, while the United States is not. The EU and its 15 member states all ratified the Protocol on 31 May 2002. In total, more than 70 countries have already ratified the Kyoto Protocol and many more are in the process of doing so. Japan has now ratified and we are optimistic that Russia will ratify soon. I am therefore quite confident that the Protocol will enter into force later this year.

Although I welcome the fact that the U.S. administration has completed its climate change policy review, its proposals will not lead to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States but will allow a significant increase.

The European Union is also concerned about the purely voluntary nature of the actions proposed and the fact that a review of the effectiveness of the measures will not take place before 2012. Under the Kyoto Protocol, discussions on second commitment period targets will start no later than 2005.

One positive outcome of the EU-U.S. summit meeting in June 2001 was agreement to establish a dialogue on climate change. The first meeting of the EU-U.S. High-Level Representatives on Climate Change was held in April, and while we agreed to disagree on the Kyoto Protocol, we nevertheless decided to collaborate further on research and monitoring with regard to climate change.

We can defeat climate change if we show the political will. Kyoto remains the right path forward in our view. I sincerely hope that the United States will soon return to the Kyoto table and engage constructively on this issue of primary importance.If one examines the reasons for the apparent divergence in the way we regulate to protect the environment, the first step should be to get rid of an over-simplification - namely that Europe regulates while the United States relies on the market.

Europe's regulatory approach to environmental protection is apparently regarded by some in the United States as top-down, "command-and-control," in§exible, and lacking transparency. I could not disagree more. Our 15 member states are not easily commanded by Brussels, and we also engage in a most open dialogue, involving interested stakeholders, at all stages in our consultations.

The European Union is increasingly using market-based instruments, as well as information and awareness-raising, in a policy mix with regulation to achieve our goals. Just as the U.S. environmental toolkit does not just contain litigation and voluntary initiatives, but also includes mandatory schemes, the European toolkit does not just contain legislation. We increasingly use a mixture of policy instruments on both sides of the Atlantic.

So where should we look for possible reasons for the differences between the EU and the United States with regards to environmental protection? The question is potentially vast, and very open to caricature, but I would like to address five possible reasons for our seemingly different approaches.

  1. Commitment to international action: There is a view that while Americans are practical people, we Europeans are wordsmiths obsessed with process. This is unfair to Europeans. In Europe, we firmly believe that a multilateral approach is the only effective way to address problems such as global environmental degradation, and we are fully committed to the ongoing multilateral processes in particular in the framework of the United Nations. To an onlooker, the European Union would appear more committed to international action to address global environmental problems. We are a contracting party to over 40 conventions, whereas the United States is not yet a party to even the most important conventions - the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Basel Convention on the control of cross-border movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal. In the United States, there seems to be a perception that the European Union signs up easily to international agreements for political reasons and that we do not care so much about implementation. This is a misconception I must categorically reject. On the contrary, we do not sign up to international agreements unless we are sure that we are able to meet the obligations contained in them.
  2. The role of political leadership: It is a truism that we have different systems of government. The 15 EU member states are parliamentary democracies, the vast majority of which are governed by coalition governments, sometimes including Green parties. A different style of political leadership predominates in Europe. Politicians and parliamentarians are expected to be opinion formers and to lead public opinion. Of course, U.S. politics has such leaders too, but there seems to be a broader acceptance of politicians who see their role as being to represent particular interests rather than to shape new forces for change. A recent opinion poll conducted by Gallup and referred to me by Christine Todd Whitman, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, put the environment last of nine issues that concern U.S. voters. For European voters, on the other hand, the environment figures in the top five issues. It is consistently highlighted by Europeans as a major issue for further European cooperation according to our Eurobarometer opinion surveys.
  3. Public attitudes: Regulatory approaches sometimes differ on either side of the Atlantic because of cultural differences and public attitudes. The most obvious example concerns biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The European public has been very reticent in accepting GM technology. Americans, however, appear more open to new technologies and scientific advances and have readily accepted genetically modified foods. We cannot overlook the genuine fear of GM crops in Europe. Europeans are very sensitive about their food, and consumer confidence has been greatly shaken by a series of well-publicized incidents starting with "mad cow" disease. Such incidents are still very fresh in people's minds. As far as GMOs are concerned, we are in the "confidence building" business in the European Union.
  4. The role of technology: The question of GMOs is linked to the broader question of faith in technological advance. I believe Europeans are more skeptical than Americans about the possibility of technological advance and market forces solving our natural problems. I have heard for example that we should not worry about fossil fuels running out, as new technology could soon be available to produce gas from coal. Likewise, in the United States there are great hopes that satellite technology will help in preventing or mitigating natural disasters. We, too, see some opportunities in this, but we are less hooked on the possibility of a technological fix. There is of course a role for technology, but we cannot simply wait for the market to deliver new techniques to solve our natural problems.
  5. Local versus global: It seems that the environment is essentially a local issue in the United States. This is true in Europe too. But in Europe, there is a greater understanding among the broader public of the international and global dimensions of the environmental challenge. In fact, environmental policy has been one of the foundation stones of the European Union. Europeans firmly believe in cooperation across political borders to address environmental challenges.

These five points may go some way to explaining our differing approaches. I have steered clear of some of the more stereotypical arguments I have heard - for example, that Americans are still driven by the frontier spirit of individualism and freedom from government rules, while European society is significantly more urban and elitist.

The question is whether our attitudes are converging or diverging. I believe the answer is that we are of course converging on some issues, but diverging on others. We cooperate well bilaterally on certain technical issues, such as air quality and chemicals, and I hope that we can learn more from the United States about children's environmental health.

I have never made the mistake of believing that what happens in the United States can be understood by simply following developments "inside the Beltway" in Washington. Similarly, one will never understand the EU by looking only at what happens in Brussels.

I have been struck by what seems to be happening in states such as Iowa, Michigan and New Hampshire with regard to the climate change issue - even if these developments are not specifically classified under the heading of climate change. For example,

New Hampshire is developing a statewide cap and trade system covering utilities' greenhouse gas emissions, as the EU is doing, and Michigan is pursuing an economic development plan focusing on the establishment of renewable energy and fuel cell industries in the state.

We would be asking the wrong question if we put the emphasis only on whether Brussels and Washington are converging or diverging. A great deal seems to be happening in the United States at state and local levels. But that only gets us so far. Individual states do not negotiate international treaties.

Environmental protection and sustainable development now have the same degree of priority on the global agenda as other major issues. As the world's two largest economies, the European Union and the United States should provide leadership and commitment to advance this agenda.

Working together is the only way forward. The Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development at the end of August offers a new opportunity for the European Union and the United States to do so on the international stage. I am optimistic that we can work together to make a success of this important summit.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number III in the Summer of 2002.

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