Going Soft? Environment Policy in the European Union

By Robert May
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2011, Vol. 2010/2011 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

III - "Follow the Leader:"  The EU's Use of Soft Power in a Globalised World

Assessment of the EC/EU’s ability to achieve the objective of power – the change of another’s preferences to match one’s own – viewed through a lens of co-optive power thus means assessing how far the EC/EU attained leadership in a world characterised by globalisation. How did the EC/EU react to the increase in power diffusion? Was it able to achieve leadership and use its discourse to influence others in the realm of climate change negotiations?

It has been demonstrated earlier in this article that the EC/EU responded to the growth in economic interdependence, and its impact on environmental regulation, through the internal development of policy (the catalytic convertors example). On the international stage, it has also seen some success – for example, affecting a bargain with Russia to ensure its adherence to the Kyoto Protocol by linking that adherence with EU support for Russia’s bid to join the WTO.44 It was also the pioneer of a carbon-trading system which it continues to vigorously advocate45 – even though its effectiveness is questionable.46 But the EU was not the first to pioneer a carbontrading system – BP holds that trophy47 – and transnational corporations (TNCs) have often erected a hurdle for the EC/EU to jump over. TNCs became worried by EC/EU efforts to combat climate change because they feared a reduction in economic competitiveness on the world market; however, the EC/ EU simply shifted its preference from sub-national and regional climate change policies to a preference for international climate change agreements.48 Other approaches to the growth in trans-national actors have been equally exemplary: environmental NGOs are included within the EC/EUs internal decision- making and policy implementation process49 – as pressure groups and think-tanks, which seek to mobilise support and provide the European institutions with much-needed expertise (and even staff); and as enforcers and overseers of implementation through the use of the complaints procedure and litigative powers provided by the European Courts of Justice. In its responses to the increase in power diffusion, the EC/EU shows its clear grasp of the change in global issues – and often takes the lead in suggesting solutions, such as by proposing (and working towards) higher targets for emissions reduction under the Kyoto Protocol.50

It is this proposal of higher targets, taken in conjunction with the unilateral work embarked upon through the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) that the EC/EU can be shown to have increased its effective directional leadership.51 The EC/EU has further demonstrated directional leadership through the experience it gained in dealing with a Europe-wide reduction of sulphur dioxide pollution that resulted in acid rain, and also through its involvement in the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer.52 Giddens criticises the model of the EC/EU as a trading bloc for dealing with economic interdependence53 by raising the example of heavy-handed coercion of EU neighbourhood states (e.g. Ukraine) by Russia; in terms of structural leadership, the EC/ EU is certainly lacking. The securitization of climate change (and environmental policy) is perhaps on the increase,54 and the EU is constrained by its unusual agent/structure dynamic55 – but Howorth reminds us that military power has little utility for solving complex socio-economic problems56 such as climate change. Giddens certainly agrees – he believes that the EU must act to attract pivotal states which have considerable regional influence.57 The EU, as part of its ideal-based leadership, attempts to do so by being a remarkably active policy entrepreneur.58

The EU’s ability to construct a discourse and influence others must come from the expansion of (and inclusion into traditional structures of governance of) scientific knowledge59 surrounding climate change. The EC/EU, as mentioned repeatedly, has made significant headway towards combining scientific knowledge and international governance through the inclusion – and ironically, the much lauded democratic deficit in European politics may benefit the EU’s creation and promotion of a discourse by allowing for, in Lidskog and Elander’s words, a technocratic ‘ecologically enlightened elite’ to take on popular decisions.60

Nevertheless, the EC/EU has not been entirely successful at wielding its power on the global stage of climate change negotiations. John Vogler argues that the incoherency of the EC/EU stance prevents perception of the EU as a true global leader61 – a fact compounded by the explicit link between EU environmental policy and economic policy. An actor that ignores the interdependent nature of the world economy while pursuing a policy which could harm economic performance will suffer a massive loss of economic capacity and of perceived power.62 Vogler illustrates this through the infamous Tuna-Dolphin case of 1994 in which the EC sought to protect the European fishing market at the expense of environmental concern. Another factor compounding this is the aforementioned agency-structure dynamic of the EU: there are significant amounts of shared competence surrounding European environmental policy between the EC/EU institutions and the member states; limitations set up by the six-month term of the European Council presidency can impede performance in long, drawn-out international negotiations; and substantial differences in capacity and attitude toward dealing with environmental issues at the supranational level;63 all of which seriously impact upon the ability for the EC/EU to deal coherently with environmental policy. Indeed, during the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change 2009, inconsistencies between EC/EU attitudes and member state attitudes frustrated the ability for the EU to act coherently – and undoubtedly contributed towards the failure of the talks. Further structural incoherency is apparent when looking at the implementation of Kyoto Protocol targets: not all member states were subject to the same, strict targets64 (a fact much lauded as strengthening the EU’s international negotiation position65), yet the EU was unable to coherently implement policies and action toward these targets. This was blamed on ‘too much talk’: the limitations of regular reports and conferences as a monitoring tool.66

IV - Conclusion

Despite the limitations and structural issues the EU may face, it is hard to imagine that it does not wield some influence on the global stage of environmental negotiations. While it may not be a comprehensive leader in the field of environmental policy, this piece has shown that it can and has wielded power successfully enough to be considered the only leader. The EU has demonstrated the effect a comprehensive regional policy can have upon environmental issues within its own territory, and how this – by extending that regional environmental policy into the international realm of foreign policy negotiations – can affect the projection of its power on the international stage. While Giddens67, Parker and Karlsson68 may argue that the securitisation of climate change issues places pressure on the EC/EU to strengthen its security capability, the use of soft power in a globalised world (where power is diffused away from states who alone hold the responsibility for the use of military power) is far more apt in the realm of environmental policy. It has helped the EC/EU secure leadership in the debate, allowing it to set the agenda and produce a discourse that influences other actors in the realm of international relations.


  1. Joseph Nye on Global Power Shifts. Produced by TED Conferences, LLC. Performed by Joseph S. Nye Jr. TED, 2010.
  2. Bretherton, Charlotte, and John Vogler. The European Union as a Global Actor. Second Edition. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006: page 12
  3. Nye, Global Power Shifts
  4. Benson, David, and Andrew Jordan. “Environmental Policy.” Chap. 22 in European Union Politics, edited by Michelle Cini and Nieves Pérez-Solórzano Borragán, 358 - 374. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010: page 367
  5. Lenschow, Andrea. “Environmental Policy: Contending Dynamics of Policy Change.” Chap. 12 in Policy-Making in the European Union, edited by Helen Wallace, William Wallace and Mark A. Pollack, 305 - 325. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: page 323
  6. Lenschow, Andrea, and Carina Sprungk. “The Myth of a Green Europe.” Journal of Common Market Studies (Blackwell Publishing) 48, no. 1 (2010): 133 – 154: page 137
  7. Lenschow, Andrea, and A Zito. “Blurring or Shifting of Policy Frames?: Institutionalization of the Economic-Environmental Policy Linkage in the European Community.” Governance 11 (1998): 415 - 442.
  8. Lenschow, Environmental Policy, p. 323
  9. O’Riordan, Tim, and Jill Jäger. “The History of Climate Change Science and Politics.” Chap. 1 in Politics of Climate Change: A European Perspective, edited by Tim O’Riordan and Jill Jäger, 1 - 31. London: Routledge, 1996.
  10. Bretherton and Vogler, EU as a Global Actor
  11. Giddens, Anthony. The Politics of Climate Change. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.
  12. Howorth, Jolyon. “The EU as a Global Actor: Grand Strategy for a Global Grand Bargain?” Journal of Common Market Studies (Blackwell Publishing) 48, no. 3 (2010): 455 - 474.
  13. Karlsson, Christer, and Charles F. Parker. “Climate Change and the European Union’s Leadership Moment: An Inconvenient Truth?” Journal of Common Market Studies (Blackwell Publishing) 48, no. 4 (2010): 923 - 943.
  14. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership, p. 925
  15. Haigh, Nigel. “Climate Change Policies and Politics in the European Community.” Chap. 6 in Politics of Climate Change: A European Perspective, edited by Tim O’Riordan and Jill Jäger, 155 - 185. London: Routledge, 1996: page 156
  16. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership, p. 925
  17. Bretherton and Vogler, EU as a Global Actor, p. 91
  18. Lenschow, Environmental Policy, p. 314, Box 12.2
  19. Ibid.
  20. Bretherton and Vogler, EU as a Global Actor, p. 89; Bringezu, S., and H. Schuetz. Total Material Requirement of the European Union. Copenhagen: European Environment Agency, 2001.
  21. Bretherton and Vogler, EU as a Global Actor, p. 89
  22. Nye Jr., Joseph S. Power in the Global Information Age: From Realism to Globalization. London: Routledge, 2004: page 53
  23. Nye, Power in the Global Information Age, p. 56
  24. Ibid.
  25. Nye, Power in the Global Information Age, p. 53
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Nye, Power in the Global Information Age, p. 71
  29. Nye, Global Power Shifts
  30. Nye, Power in the Global Information Age, p. 65
  31. Ibid., p. 75
  32. Nye, Global Power Shifts
  33. Nye, Power in the Global Information Age, pp. 72-76
  34. Lidskog, Rolf, and Ingemar Elander. “Addressing Climate Change Democratically. Multi-Level Governance, Transnational Networks and Governmental Structures.” Sustainable Development 18 (2010): 32 – 41: page 38
  35. Howorth, EU as a Global Actor, page. 459
  36. Lidskog and Elander, Addressing Climate Change, page 39
  37. Ibid.
  38. O’Riordan and Jäger, The History of Climate Change Science and Politics, page 2
  39. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership, pp. 926-927
  40. Lidskog and Elander, Addressing Climate Change, page 926
  41. Death, Dr Carl. “One World Comes to One Country?: Governing Sustainable Development From the Johannesburg Summit.”, Unpublished PhD Thesis, Aberystwyth University http://cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/handle/2160/1878, 2008: page 27
  42. Ibid., page 34
  43. Nye, Global Power Shifts
  44. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, page 188
  45. Haigh, Climate Change and The EU
  46. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership; Lenschow and Sprungk, Myth of a Green Europe; Giddens, Politics of Climate Change
  47. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, p. 198
  48. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, p. 195
  49. Lenschow, Environmental Policy, pp. 318-319
  50. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, pp. 193-194
  51. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership, p. 930
  52. Haigh, Climate Change and The EU, p. 160
  53. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, p. 219
  54. Ibid., p. 205
  55. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership, p. 929
  56. Howorth, EU as a Global Actor, page. 460
  57. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, p. 205
  58. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership, p. 931
  59. Ibid.; Lidskog and Elander, Addressing Climate Change, pp. 34-38
  60. Ibid., p. 35
  61. Bretherton and Vogler, EU as a Global Actor, p. 93
  62. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, p. 212
  63. Cameron, Fraser. An Introduction to European Foreign Policy. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2007: page 14
  64. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, p. 193
  65. Lenschow, Environmental Policy, p. 323
  66. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change, p. 197
  67. Giddens, Politics of Climate Change
  68. Karlsson and Parker, Climate Change and EU Leadership

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