Going Soft? Environment Policy in the European Union

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

“The foreign policy of the Obama administration was going to be one of smart power: ‘Using all the tools in our foreign policy toolbox’” - Joseph Nye Jr.


The European Union (EU) is rarely seen as a powerful actor on the international relations stage. A statecentric, ‘high politics’ view of global politics tends to overlook the involvement of the EU and its effectiveness, 2 and the dominance of Realist conceptions of power ensures that the role of non-state actors is consistently undervalued.3 However in the realm of international environmental negotiations, the EU has taken up a strong leadership role – and this article seeks to explain how the EU was able to do so despite not having the same coercive power resources as traditional states. The explanation is set out in three sections: first, the European Community/Union environmental policy’s inextricable link to its foreign policy is outlined; second, a brief overview of Joseph Nye’s conception of ‘soft power’ is wedded to the idea of soft power being the dominant power paradigm in international negotiations of environmental policy; third, this wedding of soft power and environmental negotiations is shown to be true by observing empirical reality through the lens of the EC/EU’s participation in international climate change negotiations, and it is argued that the successful attainment of the EU’s objectives is directly attributable to its use of soft power.

I - "Setting the Global Stage:" The EU's Environmental Policy

Environmental policy is a relatively new construct on the global stage. While negotiations of state borders have occurred throughout known history – preceding even the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – the effects of environmental change, despite transcending traditional state boundaries, has been formally noted in international relations only in the latter quarter of the 20th century. This is certainly reflected in the evolution of environmental policy within the European Communities. The first impetus for discussions about environmental issues occurred only after the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm4 in direct response to ecological crises which affected the entire European continent – in fact, over one third of EC/EU measures to combat environmental issues can be traced back to international agreements. 5 An explosion (and associated dioxin pollution) at a chemicals factory near Seveso, Italy in 1972; a growing concern over acid rain-induced forest die-back (‘Waldsterben‘) in 1970s Germany; recognition of ozone depletion and the resulting climate change; these issues and more triggered the development of a European Communities-level environmental policy. The transnational effects of the crises and the need for border-transcending collective action encouraged the creation of such policies.6 The early environmental policies of the European Communities helped push the burgeoning EU into ’something more than a market‘,7 and they show that the EC member states (and their national governments) were increasingly willing to act collectively and co-ordinate environmental policy under the ECs umbrella.8

Discussion of the creation of policy at the EC/EU level must also touch upon the legal basis for such policy – an area which can confuse, and often undermines the credibility of the EU to act as an actor in international relations. If the EC/EU cannot act in negotiations at an international level, how can it participate in environmental negotiations such as the Copenhagen Climate Conference 2009? Academics such as O’Riordan and Jäger,9 Bretherton and Vogler,10 Giddens,11 Howorth12 and Karlsson and Parker13 have debated considerably over the extent to which the EC/EU can be considered an international actor; but when it comes to environmental politics the EC/EU has a clear role. While it serves as a regional, intergovernmental arena, the EC has a foundation in law (the various treaties of European integration)14 but before the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 the EU itself did not have a legal personality so as to ratify international agreements. The EU instead acted as an interlocutor on behalf of the EC while participating in and ratifying international conventions.15 After 2009, the Lisbon amendments allowed for the EU to be granted the EC’s legal basis for negotiating in international conventions. That responsibility, coupled with the fulfilment of criteria of authority, autonomy, cohesion, volition and recognition16 qualifies the EC/EU as an international actor.

While transnational ecological crises and the legal responses to them helped ”internationalise” the EC/ EU’s environmental policy, growing trade interdependence (perhaps synonymous with the term ”globalisation”) also added pressure to internationalise EC/EU environmental policy.17 The European Communities’ commitment under the Treaties of Rome (1957) to create and maintain a common European market meant that the institutions of the European Community were also committed to maintaining a level playing field both within that common market and within the global stage upon which the market was set. In the early 1980s, new environmental awareness and legislation directly linked economic policy and environmental concerns.18 For example, in the United States, new legislation was created to allow only cars fitted with three-way catalytic converters to be sold in their automotive markets. This instantly created a problem – EC member states could take unilateral action outside of the EU institutions to ensure continued participation in the US car market, and risk destabilising the common market, or take action at an EC level and limit (if not eliminate) competitive distortion both in the global car market and in the regional European car market. As it stands, legislation was passed at the EC level – overriding opposing member states via the use of Qualified Majority Voting – and ensuring that all participants in the automotive common market submitted to environmental concerns. Environmental policies and multi-national economic policies were directly linked through actions such as these at the European level; a further example within the one given is that Greece made its support for Directive 88/76 contingent upon ’greater EC support for environmental protection projects in Athens‘.19

As well as the marriage of environmental policy with multi-national economic policy, and the impact of ecological crises upon EC member states, it is enough to observe some simple facts to realise that the EU has a commitment to developing international environmental policy through its ”foreign policy toolbox”. The EC/EU has a total material requirement (the amount of resources consumed by an economy, excluding air and water) that amounted to 50 tonnes per capita (19 billion tonnes total; compared to the USA’s 84 tonnes per capita) by the end of the 20th century. Eighty per cent of one year’s total material requirement returns to the environment within the space of another year; but most importantly – forty per cent of this material requirement is sourced from outside the EU.20

The EU can therefore be seen as having a global responsibility for environmental policy negotiation21 -- transnational ecological crises, transnational economic interdependence and the EU’s use of international economic resources protest to this responsibility.

II - "Softening the Blow:" Soft Power as an Environmental Power Paradigm

To rehash an old cliché – ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. The same phrase in reverse is true of the European Union’s position in international relations Environmental Negotiations – great responsibility requires great power. However, traditional conceptions of power are far too insufficient to describe the power that the European Union wields in the sphere of international relations. Power is often defined as the ability to change the preferences of others,22 with two Realist concepts of power conversion being the principal methods for changing those preferences. These are the archetypes of command power: inducements (“carrots”) and threats (“sticks”).23 However, it is hard to say that either concept can be relevant in the theatre of international environmental negotiations – the aforementioned linkage of economic and ecological issues making it remarkably difficult to manipulate economic interdependence to achieve environmental goals; and the use of military power either being ”too much” or posing a direct ecological threat in and of itself. Also, in the contemporary world, both the context of the use of power and the sources of that power have changed significantly.

Command power is defined as the action of coercing states into changing their preferences.24 Successful levels of command power rely on tangible sources of power – that is, the size of a nation-states’ population (and the percentage of that population able to participate in military service), the geographical location of a nation-state, the raw materials in its possession and the capital surplus a nation-state may enjoy.25 As stated above, command power is conceptualised as being the use of threats and inducements.

Inducements involve the manipulation of asymmetric, independent relationships in the economic sphere of international relations: “the less vulnerable of two states may use subtle threats to their relationship as a source of power”.26 However, ecological issues in the contemporary world “involve large elements of mutual advantage that can be achieved only through co-operation”.27

Threats involve the use of military power to undermine another nation-state’s security. However, new dimensions of security undermine this simplistic, strategic-military view of security. ’The forms of vulnerability have increased, and trade-offs amongst policies are designed to deal with different vulnerabilities‘: 28 ecological security is now equally as – if not more important than – traditional military security.

The context of the use of power has also changed. The spheres of international relations could be viewed as a kind of ‘3-D chess board’,29 and observations of the levels of power attained by actors in each sphere can help reveal the limitations of command power. The military sphere is largely unipolar, with the US being the most prominent strategic actor in that sphere. The economic sphere is multipolar (if the EC/EU is taken as an actor in this area), with many actors competing for the ”top spot”. However, in the transnational sphere, where solutions must be found for issues such as cross-boundary pollution and climate change, traditional power structures can break down. The stage is crowded owing to a process of power diffusion, and traditional theories of power transition and hegemonic decline are no longer applicable.30 Power diffusion reduces the ability for ’any great power to control its environment and achieve what it wants‘.31 Nye argues that a cooptive power structure is the only method for dealing with an international relations stage crowded with transnational actors. The objective of changing another actor’s transnational objectives through coercion or inducement is undermined, and instead the best method for changing such objectives is through the attraction of one’s own culture, values and institutions.32

However, simply stating that power diffusion occurs and that the EU requires a co-optive power approach to achieve its objectives in international environmental negotiations is far too simplistic an argument. Instead, one must contextualise the EU’s approach to environmental negotiations with the increased power diffusion away from non-state actors. Nye identifies 5 trends that highlight increased power diffusion away from state actors:33 (1) Increasing economic interdependence; (2) Growth in prominence of Trans-National Actors; (3) Modernisation and urbanisation of weaker countries increasing motivation to use their power resources on the global stage (e.g. through growth in nationalism and/or social awareness); (4) Spread of modern technology increasing the ability to wield power on the global stage; (5) The changing nature of global issues e.g. changing nature of threats to national security.

The result of a world affected so strongly by power diffusion away from state actors is the emergence of two parallel systems of multi-level governance.34 One is characterised by a formal, state-centric, governance-orientated system – the international state system. The other is characterised by informal, multi-actor networks of organisation – such as the world economy. The EU is an example of both systems of organisation, and in terms of forging links of complex interdependence within these networks it is ‘unprecedented’.35 While nation-states are important within the EC/EU (and the international networks that it is a subset of), trans-national, nonstate actors share importance36 forming a patchwork of partly overlapping assemblies responding to various kinds of demos.37 Indeed, climate change science itself is a product of a period of intense interdisciplinary networking.38

Power can be wielded within these multi-level networks using both hard and soft power concepts. Karlsson and Parker39 argue that the EC/EU wields its (limited) hard power and soft power resources in environmental negotiations by ensuring its leadership in three fundamental fashions. First, it tries to attain structural leadership – through the manipulation of hard power coercive and inducive instruments so as to create direct incentives, costs and benefits amongst its targets. Second, it tries to attain directional leadership –”leading by example” by demonstrating the feasibility, value and superiority of an idea with the aim of attracting emulation of that model. Third, the EC/EU tries to attain idealbased leadership – the identifying of problems and the promotion of particular ideas towards solutions. The soft power versions of leadership (directional and ideal) can be linked by creating an idea and demonstrating the efficacy of that idea.40 Such efforts would have the effect of producing a discourse through the conditioning of rules and historical transformations.41 The manipulation of that discourse and interaction of that discourse with others in the spheres of international relations influence the internal standards that actors use to regulate their own behaviour42 – in other words, the creator of the discourse attracts others to the standards they both create and demonstrate in the world and can successfully ‘get others to do what [they] want’.43

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