The European Council

By its very nature, the European Council has always been the one EU institution least involved in the detail of policy, and the one most given to grand statements of intent and 'solemn' declarations. Nonetheless, many of those statements have come at critical junctures in the evolution of policy, and have both clarified the goals of - and given new direction to the work of - the other institutions.

While the Council has been most active in the fields of agriculture, the budget, the single market and related economic issues, and tends to steer away from discussions about more technically-oriented areas of EU policy, Johnston was quite wrong when she suggested in 1994 that 'other policy sectors, such as the environment, have been mostly untouched by the heads of government' (Johnston, 1994, p. 46). In fact, there have been a number of occasions - particularly in the 1980s and 1990s - when the Council has issued statements and declarations that have had a fundamental impact on the direction taken by EU environmental policy.

The first substantial contribution of the Council came before it had even been created, when the heads of government meeting in October 1972 issued their declaration that economic expansion was not an end in itself, that it should result in an improvement in the quality of life and standards of living, and that particular attention should be given to 'intangible values and to protecting the environment so that progress may really be put at the service of mankind'. The heads of government also called on the Community to develop a blueprint for a formal environmental policy by July 1973, the result of which was the publication of the First Environmental Action Programme, which set the foundation for all the policy developments that followed.

The Council focused on other issues during the remainder of the 1970s, but the combination of energy crises, social pressures and rising public interest in the member states pushed the environment back up the agenda, and the June 1983 European Council held in Stuttgart under the German presidency proved to be another landmark event. It not only played a key role in the development of the European response to acidification (see Chapter 8), but resulted in the adoption of a statement strongly in favour of accelerating and reinforcing action on pollution, which had a notable impact on subsequent air pollution laws.

Nearly two years later, leaders meeting at the March 1985 summit in Brussels concluded that environmental protection could contribute to improved economic growth and job creation, and that environmental policy should become part of the economic, industrial, agricultural and social policies pursued by the Community. This conclusion was to lead to the decision to make the integrative clause part of the SEA two years later, which was to have important ramifications for the role played by environmental considerations in EU policy more generally.

Subsequent statements at European Council summits (notably at Hanover in June 1988, Rhodes in December 1988, Dublin in June 1990 and Edinburgh in December 1992) helped nudge the development of law and policy and gave focus to some of the key objectives of EU policy. The Dublin summit was notable for a declaration on the 'environmental imperative' in which the heads of government outlined their belief that environmental action 'be developed on a coordinated basis and on the principles of sustainable development and preventive and precautionary action'. They also noted an increasing acceptance of a wider responsibility, as one of the foremost regional groupings in the world, [for the Community] to play a leading role in promoting concerted and effective action at the global level . . . [and its] special responsibility to encourage and participate in international action to combat global environmental problems. (Bulletin of the European Communities, no. 6, vol. 23, 1990, p. 18)

Environmental issues have since featured prominently on the agendas of the European Council, and the decisions of European leaders have given greater force and clarity to the objectives of EU environmental policy. Notably, the Council paid considerable attention in the late 1990s to the problem of global warming, which became one of the most contentious issues in negotiations between the EU, its member states, and its major economic competitors, notably the United States (see Chapter 10).

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