Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Report

A sixth Environmental Action Programme

66. The Global Assessment will provide the basis for a decision as to whether to move to a 6th EAP. The Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallström, has already committed herself to producing a 6th EAP, under the co-decision procedure. However, she is in favour of shorter, simpler and more strategic document than the fifth which would focus on strategic priorities for action with more detailed targets to follow.[78] In the draft Global Assessment document available to us, the Commission proposes a broad strategy which identifies the priority areas for future policy development and which foresees the subsequent preparation of detailed action plans, including quantifiable targets and proposals for their implementation.

67. Mr Meacher was supportive of this kind of approach with a short, focused document concentrating on strategic priorities. He told us that a change in form was necessary to take account of the current plan's weaknesses.[79] The Government would like to see a programme which pulled policy together and which was aspirational rather than prescriptive. This should then be sufficiently flexible to enable any potential new challenges to be accommodated. However, Mr Meacher was clear that he would like to see a 6th EAP deal with processes as well as aspirations to avoid repeating the failure of the 5th EAP to provide guidance on how aims actually might be delivered.

68. Our witnesses were also keen to have a 6th EAP. EEB-UK told us that they wanted to see a 6th EAP providing "a strong environmental component" and contributing to an overall sustainable development strategy.[80] They also suggested that a more frequent review mechanism should be built into the 6th rather than the one-off review that was included in the 5th.[81]

69. Mr Meacher felt that there were two obvious dominant cross-cutting issues that should be included in a 6th EAP-climate change and trade & the environment. He also outlined a number of other priorities: biotechnology, EU chemicals strategy, fisheries, decoupling of economic growth and... pollution.[82] English Nature agreed that trade issues were "fundamental"[83] and also highlighted fisheries as a key area to be addressed by a 6th EAP especially as the latter had not been considered in the fifth.[84]

70. The 6th EAP, will be agreed under the co-decision process, but it is unclear what status an EU sustainable strategy would have as it could only draw political authority from the European Council. However, Mr Tony Brenton suggested that "there was absolutely no reason" why such a strategy should not take exactly the same form as an Environmental Action Programme in the sense that it was a Commission document which the Council had expressed support and approval of.[85] However, it was clear that the Government had no established view on the status of an EU sustainable development strategy.

71. It is unlikely that a sustainable development strategy, which comprised of more than a statement of general principles, could be adopted under the same legal procedure, and thus have the same legal force, as a 6th EAP (Article 175(3)), since this related to environmental policy only. In addition, Article 6 of the Amsterdam Treaty appears insufficiently specific to support such a procedure.

72. Whatever the legal basis, it is clear that the potential for making a difference may be swamped by a flood of plans and strategies. The interaction of a new EAP and of sectoral integration strategies with an overarching sustainable development strategy needs careful consideration. Mr Meacher told the Committee that he was supportive of both a sustainable development strategy and a 6th EAP with a 6th EAP feeding into a comprehensive sustainable development strategy.[86] It is possible that Helsinki will call for the simultaneous development of a sustainable development strategy, 6th EAP, and sectoral integration strategies.

73. The Committee welcomes the Government's support for a Sixth Environmental Action Programme (EAP). The Fifth EAP was focussed on integration but, although a Commission document, had little ownership outside DGXI and had little impact on other sectors. A Sustainable Development Strategy should therefore provide the overarching direction with a 6th EAP providing the environmental priorities and the starting point for negotiations on the balance to be struck in the sustainable development strategy. The Committee believes that such a plan is crucial if an overarching EU Sustainable Development Strategy is to have a strong environmental backbone:

—  we believe that there should be both an EU sustainable development strategy and a Sixth EAP (focussed on the environment) with targeted timetables linked by the sectoral integration strategies;

—  it is essential that the Government pushes for high level agreement about how the range of EU integration initiatives fit together and can be managed and led;

—  to avoid confusion, there needs to be clarity regarding how a Sixth EAP, sectoral integration strategies and an sustainable development strategy would be linked, and which should provide the principal framework; and

  The Government should ask the Commission to produce a Communication clarifying these relationships.

74. In attempting to integrate the environmental with economic and social factors, there is a danger that environmental objectives could be compromised unacceptably. As English Nature pointed out to the Committee, there are certain trade-offs that cannot be done as some environmental assets are irreplaceable.[87] There will therefore always remain an important role for environmental legislation and the boundary between environmental policy and integration needs careful thought. The EU has limited competence in social affairs eg poverty, health, population and participation. It is therefore necessary to set out the minimum environmental parameters that the other legs of the sustainable development tripod (and sectoral Council's strategies) should respect, recognising that certain environmental assets are irreplaceable. This is particularly important in relation to climate change, and biodiversity.[88]

75. Decisions at Helsinki on these approaches have implications not just for the future development of EU policy, but also Member States' policies. A 6th EAP for example, would be agreed by co-decision so it would be a legally-binding document and any EU-wide targets and timetables would require action both at EU and Member State level. Member States should be required to develop their own action plans to take forward the various strands of the overarching EU approach as it emerges.

78  Introductory remarks by Commissioner nominee Margot Wallström, Parliamentary hearings of the Commissioners- designate, 2 September 1999 [] Back

79  Q155 Back

80  Q74 Back

81  Q71 Back

82  Q155 Back

83  Q38 Back

84  Q33 Back

85  Q160 Back

86  Q154 Back

87  Q15 Back

88  Q11 Back

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Prepared 25 November 1999