European Affairs

Johannesburg Preparations Reveal Deep Transatlantic Divergences     Print Email

Director, Environment and Human Settlements Division, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Preparations for the Johannesburg Summit on Sustainable Development have revealed sharp policy differences between the European Union and the

United States, many of which re§ect long standing philosophical divisions between the two sides of the Atlantic.

These differences emerged clearly as members of the UN Economic Commission for Europe laid the groundwork for a regional ministerial meeting to consider the Johannesburg agenda that was held in Geneva, Switzerland, last September. As a member of the UNECE secretariat, I had a ringside seat as the two sides laid out their con§icting economic, social and environmental arguments.

Although the UNECE has 55 members in Europe, North America and Central Asia, the preparations for the regional meeting were dominated by the European Union and the United States. Switzerland, Norway and Canada also took a keen interest, but the rest of the region took a backseat. The Russian Federation made some statements and proposals, but most other Central and Eastern European countries seemed too overwhelmed by the debate between the two key players to take a stand.

From the outset the approach of the European Union and that of the United States diverged. The Americans opted for a short ministerial declaration, setting out more general principles. The European Union, on the other hand, wanted a more extensive declaration with an assessment of progress and problems.

This might sound like a purely technical or drafting detail, but I do not think that was the case. I believe that it typified quite dissimilar political attitudes. The EU position tended toward self-criticism about developments since the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992, while American thinking was that an assessment of the problems should not be given so much prominence.

How you describe the problems has implications for the political conclusions you draw. If you think the problems are severe, you tend to put more emphasis on additional efforts to resolve them. So, the European Union started the process more willing to take on new and stronger governmental commitments than the Americans.

Some of the heated exchanges between the EU and American delegations may be related to differences in internal decision-making procedures. The EU countries have a fairly cumbersome coordination procedure, which makes it more difficult for them to be §exible in the give-and-take negotiations than it is for the United States.

The technical side was not decisive. The negotiations revealed fundamental differences in the political climate in Europe and America. At the core of these differences is the question of the role of government in resolving economic, social and environmental problems. Should government be pro-active or should it have a more laid-back role in relation to market forces?

This is a debate that is not new, but that is possibly taking on new elements. The Europeans and the Americans have never seen eye to eye in relation to the welfare society, but it may be that their differences have become more pronounced recently.

By "welfare society," I mean a society in which the government uses taxation as a tool to try to reduce income disparities and to provide social services. A welfare society will, therefore, basically have higher tax rates and good public services.

On the European side of the Atlantic there is a variety of opinions on the welfare state as a political goal. Most candidates for EU accession in Central and Eastern Europe clearly subscribe to the EU consensus in support of the welfare state, while the position of some of the countries of the former Soviet Union is more ambiguous.

It was no coincidence that the Russian Federation sided more often with the United States than with the European Union in the negotiations. The present weakness of the public sector in Russia is not only an economic and governance problem, but also a political choice.

The substantive differences between Europe and America related to familiar subjects: the role of official development assistance, the need to apply international environmental agreements, notably the Kyoto Protocol, more fully, the need for new commitments to support developing countries and countries in transition, the role of public participation in decision-making on the environment, notably whether the ECE Aarhus Convention should be presented as a model for other regions of the world. The EU supported this option, while the United States and Russia were reluctant.

On the European side, the rise in poverty, mainly as part of the aftermath of the fall of the centrally planned communist system, has had a crucial impact on the economic and social situation. Nine countries, among them Ukraine, Moldova and Uzbekistan, have a GDP per capita of less than $1,000 a year and eight more countries, including Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria and the Russian Federation, a GDP per capita of less than $2,000 a year. The economic disparities within countries have grown wider and public services have deteriorated.

All this gives the pan-European internal debate urgency in matters that are not seen as vital in the U.S. In the European region, donors and recipients are virtually neighbors and there are real dangers that social unrest, and the population movements it causes, may spill across borders. This has had an impact on the European positions in terms of a greater preparedness to offer assistance to the region in order to avoid an in§ux of immigrants, which has developed into a major political and social issue in many Western European countries.

Europeans and Americans also differed as to the involvement and role of civil society in the process. Europeans were more ready to accept the presence of non-governmental organizations than the Americans and the Russians - although all strongly condemned violence by NGO activists.

The need to reach consensus leveled out many of the initial differences. The ministerial declaration, however, was not finalized until the very last moment before its adoption, which is an indication of the depth of the political problems encountered. And the friction might have been even stronger, had not the terrorist attacks of September 11 made everyone more willing to compromise.

As always in consensus documents, the philosophical basis was not necessarily satisfactory for everybody. The respective roles of governments and markets had to be covered in language that suited everybody. Thus governments could pick out pieces for their own constituencies, even if the whole might not be so appealing.

The structure of the final declaration is close to the original EU position. This might be considered a setback for the Americans, but much of the U.S.-proposed language on, for instance, the role of the private sector in strengthening the position of developing countries, was also included. So at the end of the day everybody seemed fairly satisfied with the outcome.

Sustainable development as a concept is general and broad enough to be open to different interpretations. The political discussions in this area, therefore, also indicate the priorities and attitudes of the participants. The UNECE regional preparations for Johannesburg are clearly a case in point.

Political changes on both sides of the Atlantic also have an impact on the basic tenets held on these continents. Democratic administrations in the United States are clearly more sympathetic to welfare policies than Republican ones. In Europe too, center-right governments tend to be more critical of the welfare state concept than leftist governments. But even most of the rightist parties in countries like France and Germany subscribe to many of the key elements of the welfare state in providing social security and counter-balancing market forces. So it is the deeper undercurrents in Europe and America that diverge.

To sum up, I believe that the regional preparations for the Johannesburg summit have revealed real and important political divergences between Europe and America. These will undoubtedly have an impact on forthcoming global and regional processes, where a wide range of societal issues is at stake. This does not mean that there are no uniting factors. But it will take more than a single summit meeting to overcome these deep divisions.


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

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