Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Report


An EU Sustainable Development Strategy

43. The recent Environment Council[41] concluded that "consideration should be given to the need for a comprehensive EC strategy for sustainable development with a view to providing a framework for the development of all sectoral polices and measures."[42] Mr Meacher told us that he was prominent in proposing the need for an EU Sustainable Development Strategy at the Council. Support for an EU strategy was also expressed by the Committee's other witnesses to set the overall framework for sustainable development in the EU.[43] We note that, while the DETR's memorandum to the Committee cautions that the idea of an overarching sustainable development strategy for the EU has yet to gain wide ownership.[44] Mr Meacher later told us, in evidence in another inquiry, that the EU "is currently preparing a sustainable development strategy for Europe."[45]

44. The Committee recommends that the Government support the development of an overarching EU Sustainable Development Strategy to combat the strongly compartmentalised EU structures of Treaty provisions, Council formations and Directorates General.

(i) Form

45. The Commission seems to favour the development of a set of principles, together with coherent strategies in the key economic sectors. This could then be used to represent a positive response to the Community's wider commitment to present its sustainable development strategy to the proposed Rio +10 UN conference in 2002.[46] The Government supports the Finnish Presidency aim to combine the Global Assessment process and the integration strategies to develop an overarching EU sustainable development strategy.[47]

   46. Mr Meacher told us that the Environment Council conclusions had acknowledged the importance of indicators to accompany an EU sustainable development strategy.[48] These conclusions state that "in order to monitor progress appropriate indicators must be developed expeditiously, resulting in different sets of sectoral indicators, environmental indicators and indicators for sustainable development."[49] English Nature agreed that indicators should be an "important element" of an EU strategy and linked to goals and targets.[50] Dr Jefferiss (RSPB) felt that a set of "clear and unambiguous" headline indicators were needed but not too many to be confusing.[51] Mr Meacher told us that the UK's fourteen headline indicators were a model for what could be developed at European level.[52] The European Environment Agency has also set out a number of targets as a benchmark for future improvement.

47. It is important that there is a clearly defined relationship between the targets and indicators on sustainable development developed at EU level and those developed by Member States. Mr Meacher felt that Member States' strategies should be compatible with an EU strategy.[53] Dr Paul Jefferiss (RSPB) suggested that both a top-down and a bottom up approach were required so that there was a reciprocal and iterative development of objectives, indicators and targets. He suggested that the top-down approach may be more appropriate for selection of indicators and objective setting for consistency and comparability across the European Union. However, he also thought that it would be pragmatic to allow Member States some flexibility in the development of specific targets and the quantification of how far to go on a specific indicator.[54]

48. Mr Peter Madden (The Green Alliance) pointed out that there was very little mention in the UK's sustainable development strategy of the European dimension and the interaction between UK and European levels. This was a "significant oversight"[55] bearing in mind the importance of the EU in setting environmental policy and also because of the impact of the range of other EU polices on key areas such as agriculture and transport.

49. The Committee believes that any EU Sustainable Development Strategy should be more than a general statement of principles. The Committee considers it important that the Government pushes for a strategy for action rather than guidance, containing quantitative targets, timetables and headline indicators against which progress can be monitored.

50. The Committee commends the Government in its efforts to promote the UK approach to indicators in the EU.

(ii) Process


  51. There is currently no established structure in the Commission which appears to have the necessary cross-cutting links to develop an EU Sustainable Development Strategy. There is also no current formation of the Council, apart from the European Council meeting itself, that would be competent to discuss and endorse a sustainable development strategy and not much likelihood of one being created. Mr Tony Brenton (FCO) reminded the Committee that the Government had been supporting the rationalisation of Council formations (ie reduction) not the creation of new ones in an effort to reduce the fragmentation of EU business.[56] Mr Meacher did not favour the establishment of a specific Sustainable Development Council because he felt it would allow the other Councils to avoid their responsibilities with respect to integration.[57] The Government takes the view that a sustainable development strategy must be owned and implemented across all Council formations rather than being the work of one Council or Directorate General.[58] Again the need for strong political leadership is evident.

52. Mr Meacher suggested to us that the Commission and "appropriate Council" should be involved in monitoring any indicators associated with a sustainable development strategy. He would like to see regular reports to each of the relevant Councils about the progress which is being made in its area so that they can take account of that and decide what policy changes are needed.[59] He acknowledged the important role of the EEA as a research body[60] and other witnesses felt that there was also a role for the EEA as well as Eurostat for collecting and analysing the data associated with indicators.[61] Both English Nature and the panel representing EEB-UK suggested that there should also be a sustainable development unit located in the President's office[62] and a Commissioner for Sustainable Development who was not the Environment Commissioner, but perhaps a Vice-President,[63] to oversee and monitor the implementation of a strategy.

53. We support the Government view that an EU sustainable development strategy cannot be the work of one Council or Directorate General and that any strategy must be owned and implemented across all Council formations to be effective. The Committee believes that the Government should strongly oppose any moves to allocate responsibility for developing an overall strategy to DGXI which does not have the necessary overarching authority or political clout. The development of a sustainable development strategy will involve protracted and intensive negotiations between almost all of the Commission Directorates General. Strong, central political leadership from the President and Heads of Government in Council is therefore essential to directing the process.

54. The Government should suggest that the Commissioner Group on Growth, Competitiveness, Employment and Sustainable Development prepares a draft strategy, serviced by a new Sustainable Development Task Force, attached to the President's office. The six monthly Heads of Government summit, meeting as the European Council, should keep the strategy under regular review. The European Council must take action when such reviews so demand—passing the 'green baton' must not descend into passing the green buck.

55. Decisions on how co-ordinating and monitoring should be carried out need to be discussed at a high level at the same time as accepting a need for a strategy as these areas are fundamental to the integration process.

41  2207th Environment Council meeting, Luxembourg, 12 October 1999 Back

42  11654/99 Council Press Release 299, 2207th Council meeting: Environment, 12 October 1999, paragraph 12 Back

43  Ev p. 3 paragraph 11,pp. 23 & 67 Back

44  Ev p. 43 paragraph 3 Back

45  HC 883-iii Session 1998-99 Q145, published within HC45-II Session 1999-2000 Back

46  Assuring our future: What directions for future environment and sustainable development policy? The Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, Inter-service draft, European Commission, paragraph 10.1, p. 21, 24 September 1999 Back

47  Ev p. 46 paragraph 24 Back

48  Q133 Back

49  11654/99 Council Press Release 299, 2207th Council meeting: Environment, paragraph 12, 12 October 1999 Back

50  Q9 Back

51  Q54 Back

52  Q133 Back

53  Q148 Back

54  Q57 Back

55  Ev p. 2 Back

56  Q138  Back

57  Q138 Back

58  Ev p. 46 paragraph 38 Back

59  Q137 Back

60  Q177 Back

61  Q56 Back

62  Q56 & Q12 Back

63  Q59 Back

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Prepared 25 November 1999