The EU: Protecting Whose Environment?

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 6 June 1998


This talk given at the Conference of Socialist Economists in London is less a reflection on the “environment” (in the sense of green fields and trees) than on the operations of power, on “rationality” and “irrationality” in decision-making, and on how the discourse on the “environment” is being changed by globalisation. Ecological degradation means different things to different people. What makes “environmental” sense for a landless hill farmer may not make “environmental” sense for a landed one. Within this framework, this talk raises questions about environmental degradation in the European Union. Whose environment is being protected through European Monetary Union and the Single European Market? Whose environment is being degraded, rubbished and trashed by it?



I would like to explore some thoughts with you. They are less reflections on the "environment" (in the sense of green fields and trees) than reflections on the operations of power, on "rationality" and "irrationality" in decision-making, and on how the discourse on the "environment" is being changed by globalisation.

Whose Environment?

I want to start by posing a simple question. Whose environment is being protected through EMU and the Single Market; and whose environment is being degraded, rubbished, trashed.

I ask that question because ecological degradation means different things to different people. For a hill farmer in the uplands of Britain, such degradation means a loss of security and livelihood. By contrast, for those whose livelihood does not depend directly on what is around them -- number crunchers in Whitehall or Brussels, CEOs of major multinationals and the like -- environmental degradation and the protests it provokes tend be viewed as threats to their political interests. As a colleague of mine, Larry Lohmann, pithily puts it, "For them the environment is not what is around their homes, but what is around their economies".1

Even here, the brush is too broad. What makes "environmental" sense for a landless hill farmer may not make "environmental" sense for a landed one. What makes "environmental" sense for a farmer selling to local markets won't make necessarily make sense for a farmer dependent on the export trade.

So too amongst the number crunchers, the capitalists, the multinationals and the bureaucrats that we activists often portray as forming homogenous interest groups, the "environment" is generally a fiercely contested political space.

Environmental activists, for example, have rightly highlighted the influence of the European Roundtable of Industrialists (ERT) on EU policy. The impression sometimes given, however, is that the ERT acts as a single, unified body on all issues. It is comes across as a sort of modern-day Mekon -- the all powerful, green blob of a Brain whose plans for world domination would have become a reality but for the Eagle's wonder hero Dan Dare.

It may make for good campaigning -- it is an image I know I have often encouraged -- but the reality is more nuanced that the campaign pamphlets suggest. Yes, the ERT has influence. Indeed, currently, it has immense influence. It is generally recognised as "the single most powerful business group in Europe."2 And its policy documents are frequently reproduced word for word as official EU policy. But it is not a single "Brain".

It is riven by factions which, at various times in the past, have greatly diminished its effectiveness. Some of its members are neo-mercantalists, seeking a free market Fortress Europe, with trade barriers lowered internally but raised externally, and with state power being used to break open markets abroad. Some are "Pan-European social democrats", who seek to combine a Europe-wide free market with strong state welfarist policies. Still others are out-and-out global free-traders, seeking to lower trade barriers externally as well as internally.2

Not surprisingly, the group is often at loggerheads internally, its policies over the decades reflecting the rising and falling fortunes of the different groupings, which themselves are by no means fixed. For those who want to explore this further, I strongly recommend a study done by Bastiaan van Apeldoorn of the European University Institute.

A Balance of Political Forces

My point here is a simple one: Whose environment gets degraded and whose protected is never the outcome of rational policy making -- of weighing up costs and benefits and reaching a decision. It is the outcome of the balance of political forces at any given moment-- and of the cunning use of political space by a range of contingent alliances amongst political, economic and social actors.

Take the history of environmental policy in the EEC, now the EU. In the 1970s and early 1980s, for example, before neoliberalism became the dominant ideology of the Commission and its member governments, the notion of "public welfare" was stronger than it is today. As a result, environmental and public health groups were able to make good use of the political space offered by the Commission to circumvent intransigent national governments and bring in European-wide legislation that significantly protected the public good against private profit. To give a couple of examples: in agriculture, it was the EEC that brought in stricter regulations on nitrate and pesticide pollution in water: it was the EEC that passed a directive to ban the use of growth-promoters in cattle; and it was the EEC that tightened controls on the transboundary transport of hazardous wastes. All these directives - and many more -- were fought tooth and nail by the British government.

Today, that political space has been largely closed down -- or colonised for different ends. Since 1986, when the Single Market came into force after years of bitter infighting, the thrust of policy has been the dismantling of national and European regulations aimed at protecting "public health" and the "environment" and their replacement by regulations that protect those interests with "European" (and, increasingly, global) reach. The new Europe is a transnationalist Europe -- a term which embraces not only transnational companies but also those networks of administrative and political power that enable TNCs to expand their economy and to deepen and expand their economic power against a constant background of resistance. Not surprisingly, the environment that the EU now instinctively protects is an environment that reflects the priorities of transnational businesses.

The rules of trade have been rewritten (albeit after considerable political wrangling) to create what free traders call "a level playing field" -- a pitch that is "level" for those whose commercial interests demand untrammelled access to markets within Europe and abroad. For those who rely on local markets, however, or who find themselves on the periphery of this Europe, the playing field is far from level: from their point of view, it is deliberately inclined against them.

To facilitate the free flow of goods between countries, the process of making product standards the same in each country ("harmonizing" in Eurospeak) was moved up the agenda to become a top priority. In the area of food standards -- key to the "environment" enjoyed by consumers -- the European Commission agreed that any foodstuff could be sold, provided it complied with certain public health rules and its label contained specified information for consumers. National food and drink standards have thus been abolished in favour of EEC ones, often bringing lower costs for business but lower food quality for the consumer. In Britain, where food standards were scrapped in 1986, one study found that on average the amount of meat in meat products fell from 46 per cent to 31 per cent following deregulation of national food quality rules.

Moreover, whether or not goods get labelled depends less on the legal requirement to label and more on the power of the corporate interests selling the product. Genetically-modified soya imported from the US, for example, is exempted from labelling on the dubious ground that non-GM soya and GM soya cannot easily be separated. Yet, the supermarket chain Iceland has managed to do so.

Harmonization has led to a lowering of standards in other areas as well. The number of EEC permitted food additives has been expanded, so that food producers in Germany and Greece, for example, can now choose from 412 additives whereas under national legislation they were restricted to using just 120 of them. In several instances, banned additives will be legal again: Britain, for example, is now obliged to allow the import of foods containing cyclamate sweeteners, despite contrary government health department advice because cyclamates are suspected carcinogens.

So, one has a process of deregulation. But also of reregulation. Conversely, where larger industries have seen an opportunity to use tighter standards to squeeze smaller competitors, they have seized it. In the meat industry, more stringent hygiene standards have been pushed through the EU with the support of large slaughterhouse interests. Unable to afford to implement the new regulations, half of the estimated 600 slaughterhouses in Britain, many of them local, family-owned concerns, will in all likelihood be driven out of business, their trade being picked up by the larger abattoirs. Local butchers are likely to be affected too, since the larger slaughterhouses tend to sell direct to supermarkets, further concentrating the meat industry into fewer and fewer hands.

And, of course, there is the recent EU Directive of Biotechnology Inventions, which introduces new regulations that, by allowing patents on genes, effectively gives industry monopoly control over whole swathes of life.

Voluntarism Returns

Alongside the twin -- and complementary processes -- of deregulation and regulation, there is also an increased tendency towards voluntarism. Where regulation might constrict the scope of businesses by adding to competitive pressures on them, legally-binding national environmental and other standards are eschewed in favour of a voluntary approach, or, failing that, internationally agreed standards.

The concern is twofold. Firstly, voluntary environmental standards have consistently failed to address environmental degradation. While some products and processes have undoubtedly been improved, overall voluntary schemes have failed to encourage industry to strive for higher environmental performances: rather they have degenerated into a means whereby industry can set the standards it likes. Where improvements have been made, they largely reflect changes that industry was going to make in any case.

Drawing on the UK experience, researcher Karen West, argues that the failure of voluntary schemes results from a number of factors. One is mundane but important: namely that industry representatives have the time and resources to attend the meetings at which the standards are set. The second is that the voluntary nature of the schemes gives industry enormous bargaining power. If companies are threatened with higher standards than they are prepared to accept, they can simply threaten to withdraw, rendering the entire scheme irrelevant since without industry's co-operation the labels would never make it onto products

Instead of assessing the environmental impacts of a product from cradle to grave, the impacts considered are limited to those which industry finds least onerous to address. Thus:

  • The EU ecolabelling criteria for washing machines focus on the energy used. The impacts of extracting the raw materials to make the machines and the impacts of using them are ignored. As is the issue of disposal.
  • Industry has insisted that products in a given category should be "functionally equivalent". Compact fluorescent bulbs are thus in a separate category from standard incandescent bulbs. Consumers wishing to compare the relative impact on both bulbs cannot do so.

The option of international standards and regulations is equally worrying. As with ecolabelling schemes, industry -- and in particular transnationals -- have greater bargaining power than consumer groups in the internationally bodies which set standards. The result is that, where standards are set by such bodies, they generally result in higher national standards being "harmonised" downwards.

Roaming Capital: Changing Environments

The bargaining power of large corporations is further strengthened by the increased mobility of capital. Free to go anywhere they want to in Europe, companies have sought to invest their capital wherever it will earn the highest returns. High technology sectors such as the electronics industry are favoured over less productive sectors; areas of cheap or unorganised labour over areas where wages are high or where trade unions are strong. Poorer rural areas with low wages or where farmers find it hard to remain on the land are thus targeted for "development". As with investment by Northern interests in Third World countries, the major beneficiaries are primarily those in the metropolitan "core" areas to which profits are repatriated. And in the process the "environment" of the periphery is transformed into an environment that best suits the core.

Here, the EU's structural funds play a key role. Recognising the centrifugal tendencies of the Single Market and monetary union, Article 130C of the Maastricht Treaty provides for increased central funding of regional development programmes, while other articles, such as the Social Chapter, aim to "protect" the citizens of Europe from the likely social and economic fallout of economic union. It is a moot point, however, whether the beneficiaries of regional development funds are Europe's citizens or EU multinationals, because such funding has been used to break open local economies and force local communities into the economic mainstream.

In Spain, for example, the EU's structural funds have been used to introduce intensive, export-oriented agriculture at great cost to local livelihoods, exacerbating regional inequalities and transforming cultural diversity into economic disparity. In Extremadura, the Regional Development Programme provides no support for traditional extensive farming but instead offers a programme of intensive irrigated agriculture, massive road building schemes, land amalgamation and plantation forestry -- all at vast cost to the "environment" on which local people have traditionally relied.

Harvesting Subsidies

It goes without saying that structural funds could well be used for very different ends. The current power structures in Europe, however, determine that their use is largely to bolster the interests of industrial and agricultural elites.

The Common Agricultural Policy provides another example of the capture of subsidies by powerful interest groups -- to the detriment of one "environment" and the benefit of another.

The founding Fathers (there were no women amongst them) who devised the Common Agriculture Policy did not deliberately set out to poison waterways and groundwaters with pesticides, to degrade soils through the use of chemical fertilisers, to bankrupt small farmers or to benefit Brian Aldridge at the expense of Jo Grundy.

No, they set out to respond to the perceived "needs" of agriculture at the close of the Second World War - the four principle goals of the CAP being to increase production, to stabilise prices, to ensure a regular supply of cheap food and to achieve a reasonable standard of living for the agricultural population. The key mechanism for achieving those goals was price support, farmers being paid a guaranteed price for what they produced.

Forty years later, it is clear that the major beneficiaries have been Europe's largest farmers who collectively harvest 80 per cent of the subsidies. That outcome, however, was not written in the sands: rather it reflects the influence of a range of different political and social developments -- not least of which is the industrialisation of agriculture and the power structures which it has engendered.

In Britain, for example, large farmers, the agrochemical (and biotechnology) industries and the food industry now constitute the major power blocks in agriculture today, dominating policy to the point where what is deemed "good" for their interests is -- in many circles -- deemed to be synonymous with what is "good" for agriculture and food production in general.

The sources of their power are multiple and, invariably, self-reinforcing. Often, the influence they enjoy derives not just from their economic power but from more subtle social powers. Within the farming community, for example, the standing of large farmers springs in part from a perception that they are the most "progressive" and "efficient" force in agriculture -- a myth that rests on a narrow, one-dimensional view of "efficiency". Not surprisingly, as the "successful" farmers, they are the ones taken most seriously by policy makers. They are also the farmers who are likely to have the time to be able to devote themselves to such policy-makers -- because others are employed to farm "their" farms.

The environment that has thus been "protected" by CAP in Britain is thus the industrial farm. Other farmers -- hill farmers and the like -- have been progressively squeezed out as larger farmers and the agroindustry have used their lobbying power to ensure that successive CAP reform programmes have gone their way - and that the subsidies remain theirs for the harvesting.

Competition, Competition

There is little question as to the ecological and social damage that CAP and many other EU policies are causing, both in Europe and abroad.

But the present hegemony of neoliberalism makes addressing these problems increasingly difficult.

At present all European Union policies, as well as those of the rest of the world, have at their heart the need to be internationally competitive. This is the "rationale" behind deregulation, EMU and the like.

We have already heard from other speakers about the likely social consequences of EMU -- from welfare cuts to increased unemployment. But the environmental consequences are also likely to be severe, for many of the same reasons.

The cutbacks in public expenditure deemed as preferable to tax rises in order to meet the Single Currency's convergence criteria will mean there is less money available to address ecological degradation. Yet the need for massive public spending on the environment is urgent. To curb greenhouse gas emission, for example, will not only require major investment in public transport but also in energy conservation. Much of this is unlikely to come from the private sector, for the simple reason that many households could not afford to introduce energy conservation measures. A government-backed programme is needed if the 8 million households in Britain currently living in energy poverty are to have the decent, well-insulated, energy-efficient housing that is their human right.

Equally serious, EMU (and other free trade treaties, such as the Multinational Agreement on Investment) will lock the EU into a permanent regime of low taxation, low public expenditure and business-friendly regulation. Many options -- energy taxes, green taxes and the like -- will be precluded as the EU economic policy become increasingly geared to making European business internationally competitive. As my colleague Colin Hines puts it, "Any meaningful effort to protect the environment through tighter regulation or increased green taxes will be halted by the roadblock marked "On No Account Impede Competitiveness".

New Directions but with Whom?

There is an urgent need to debate a radically different approach to organising national economies and international trade. More and more it is being suggested that instead of policies being geared towards increased international competitiveness, the rebuilding and protection of local economies might form the basis of a new politics.

The vital word, here, however is politics. If a just, equitable and democratic outcome is to achieved, it is not enough simply to draw up new and better policies. The lessons of history are clear. It is critical to confront and erode the structures of power and privilege that stand in the way of equity and justice.

Key to that engagement with power is the prior question of who we stand with? Whose environment do we seek to support and protect? With whom do we seek to work? With whom will we "walk the walk"


This brings me to one last point one last point.

We operate in an increasingly murky world.

Who then do we make alliances with?

It is not enough to seek out those actors who claim to represent the "people". Or to be concerned about the environment.

In a world where everyone from transnational companies to neofascist intellectuals now talk the language of "empowerment", "community", "environment" and "localisation", it is necessary to look beyond the slogans to the politics of those who espouse them. And to build up relationships of trust with those whose politics we share.

For my part I am willing to make common cause with those whose politics, like mine, are based on a rejection of all forms of oppression. With those who rejects racism. Who reject chauvinism. Who rejects patriarchy. Who reject the right of any one individual to dominate another. And who insists on the rights of local communities to control their own resources through their own institutions and to define themselves -- not to be defined by others.

And if I am here at this Forum, it is because I hope to meet others of a like mind.


1 Larry Lohmann, in Whose Common Future? Reclaiming the Commons, Earthscan, London, 1993.

2 Bastiaan van Apeldoorn, "Globalisation, European Integration and the Transnational Restructuring of European Socio-economic Order: Social Forces and Contending Responses to Global Structural Change", Paper presented to 25th Joint Sessions of the ECPR, Institut for Politikwissenschaft, Bern, 1997.