The EU Water Framework Directive & The Role Played By Green NGO’s
By Paul Homewood
The European Water Framework Directive 2000 has been the source of much controversy, regarding its impact on river dredging. It was notable as being one of the first ones to be created through the co-decision process, in which the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament have joint influence over the final text.
However, as the above paper reveals, it also marked a step change in the way that environmental lobby groups were allowed to influence policy.
The introduction sets the scene:
The paper goes on to reveal that:
In early 1998, the Commission decided to directly involve environmental NGOs in the process of amending the WFD, but without clarifying the legal and institutional status of their involvement (Scheuer, 2001). As sanctioned actors in the policy-making process these NGOs had access to draft legislation and to key civil servants at the Commission. They were able both to keep abreast of changes in the text (in a way that had previously been denied) and to alert members of the Commission to what they perceived as the political–environmental risks of certain developments.
For example, they were consulted when Annex V was amended. This Annex provides technical details about the environmental objectives of the WFD to support Article 4, which is concerned with water quality standards. Annex V sets out the range of specific qualitative criteria that will be used to measure water status. From the moment they became more incorporated into the formal amendment process, environmental NGOs argued that by leaving it up to member states to define what was meant by terms like ‘significant change’, ‘low level impacts’ or ‘good water status’ the directive and annex effectively allowed MS governments to opt out of any of the provisions of the directive they did not like.
In other words the NGOs were always alert to what they saw as the danger of allowing the new directive to replace the obligations of existing directives with a more relaxed regulatory regime, which would allow member states voluntary compliance rather than legal obligations.
There then followed a battle between the Council of Ministers, which favoured a watered down version, and the European Parliament, which was said to be very sympathetic to the aspirations of the environmentalists.
When the Council put forward proposals in February 1999, environmental NGO’s were furious:
Ministers’ proposals produced a strong and hostile response from environmental NGOs. This development was what environmentalists had feared from the outset. Not only did the proposals dilute the legal force of the new WFD, but (since the new directive would replace existing directives which already placed legal obligations on member states) it watered down existing legislation as well. Irene Bloemink from the NGO Waterpakt stated in a press release that ‘a directive must be legally binding and enforceable, otherwise it is worth nothing. It is embarrassing, that some member states want to allow binding legislation of the 70s and 80s to be replaced by a more or less voluntary Directive.’ The derogations, it was suggested, would mean that 90% of Europe’s water would not be affected by the WFD if it went through on the Council’s terms. From the environmentalist perspective the proposals so weakened the WFD that it became ‘useless and counterproductive’ (EEB, 1999). In this form, they argued, the directive would impose a heavy administrative load but do little to protect European waters. In the autumn of 1999 (during the run-up to the Parliament’s second reading of the draft directive) NGOs such as the WWF and the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) resolved to lobby MEPs to strengthen the legislation again.
There then followed a game of parliamentary ping pong, as negotiations continued, until finally all agreed. Kaika & Page conclude:
The story of the process of producing the WFD suggests that the environmental lobby is becoming increasingly influential in shaping European water policy. The effectiveness of the green lobby is in part a result of internal shifts within the governing structures of the EU. These internal shifts may be constitutional (as in the ‘greening’ of the treaty) or institutional (as in the increasing power assigned to the European Parliament through the Amsterdam Treaty). In either case, these changes have opened up a space in which individuals within the Commission, the Parliament and the Environmental lobby can find common ground and make considerable progress in producing regulations.
Several of the interviewees noted that whilst these shifts in how the EU is organized operate at a ‘grand’ scale the reality of producing policy is far more individualized and works at a more modest scale. The number of individuals who have both the inclination and the opportunity to marry the Commission is actually quite small. It is within this small network that personal relationships develop enabling innovations to be introduced and compromises to be negotiated. As a result of its small size and the history of personal involvement the network that shapes policy is one in which the relative influence of new players can be quite great. It is in this context that a few representatives from environmental groups have managed to become important.
Such a trend is amplified by the atomized nature of European policy production. So, for example, the WFD is produced and implemented primarily through DG Environment. This gives the environmental lobby considerable advantages relative to, say, the consumer lobby, which might have closer links to DG Health and Consumer Affairs. In short, the environmentalist’s position has benefited from the recent structural shifts in the European Union, which have enabled new individuals to insinuate themselves within the network that produces environmental policy.
However, there is a danger in this recent trend. The fact that NGOs participated in the policy-making process is used by bureaucrats as the justification for the policy itself. For example, full-cost pricing is easier to defend politically when endorsed by environmental NGOs, despite its unpopularity amongst many stakeholders (agricultural, consumers). DG Environment (whose staff includes several former environmental lobbyists) are anxious not to appear to have been hijacked by environmental interests and emphasize that they are equally open to the contributions of other stakeholders such as the manufacturers of pesticides and fertilizers. Inevitably, however, the goals of DG Environment and those of the environmental lobby are much closer than those of DG Environment and the chemical industry. Thus, opening up policymaking to stakeholders is of particular advantage to the environmental lobby.
In the case of the WFD a specific topography of lobbying can be detected. On the one hand, industrial interests lobbied hardest at a national level via the Council of Ministers, whilst on the other the environmental lobby concentrated their efforts on lobbying internationally via the European Parliament. The Commission was lobbied by everybody. From the perspective of the environmental lobby, the struggle to make the WFD legally binding was seen (crudely) as a tussle between a pro-environment European Parliament/ European Commission and an anti-environment Council of Ministers. The environmentalists’ position was doubly enhanced by the fact that they had an increasingly powerful advocate in the empowered European Parliament with its veto in the co-decision process, and an increasingly open colleague in DG Environment at the Commission, with its interest in stakeholder participation.
Such an increase of influence does not mean that the final WFD is the product of environmental NGOs; indeed, it is far from what environmental NGOs were fighting for. Within the Brussels green lobby there is considerable doubt about the robustness of the law and the sincerity of the member states’ apparent support for it. Rather, the claim is that the environmental lobby was swift to capitalize on recent changes, and is in as strong a position as it has ever been to shape European water policy. The question that emerges, however, is whether any citizens’ groups have become excluded from the policy-making process by the same shifts.
What is abundantly clear in all of this is that poor old Joe Public has no say at all. EU enthusiasts like to pretend that the European Parliament introduces an element of democracy into decision making. But I do not recall my MEP consulting me on the WFD. Indeed, none of them will have done, as they do not have “constituents” as such, but are mere party apparatchiks, awarded places on the party lists.
Instead, we find that environmental NGO’s don’t simply lobby, but are actively involved in policy making, with access to draft legislation and key civil servants (many of whom are ex environmental lobbyists themselves).
This, of course, completes the circle. The EU funds the NGO’s, so that the NGO’s can influence policy in the direction the EU wanted in the first place.
In the meantime, our rivers overflow.
The full paper can be downloaded here: