Approximation process

The approximation of law is a unique obligation of membership in the European Union (EU). It means that countries aspiring to join the European Union must align their national laws, rules and procedures in order to give effect to the entire body of EU law contained in the acquis communautaire. The acquis communautaire includes the directives, regulations, and decisions adopted on the basis of the various Treaties which together make up the primary law of the European Union.

Currently, five countries (The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey) are under negotiation for membership in the Union and three countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo) were promised the prospect of joining when they are ready. One of the requirements for accession to the European Union is that these applicant countries approximate their legislation to that of the acquis communautaire. One section of the acquis contains EU laws and regulations concerning the environment.

The approximation is quite a difficult process because the existing legislation in many of the applicant countries is vastly different from European Union legislation.  Standards between the applicants and the EU vary widely, and EU regulation of the environment covers a wider scope of issues.  But failure by the applicant countries to properly approximate their environmental legislation, by focusing instead only on economic issues, may prevent a country from membership in the Union. Therefore successful approximation is necessary in order for accession to occur.

What is the approximation?

Applicant countries must approximate their legislation to resemble that of the European Union in all areas of the acquis, including the environmental chapter. Approximation is a difficult task that will require significant improvements and capital investments within the applicant countries. The goal of the approximation process is ensure 100 % compliance with the acquis “not just on paper, but also in fact.” To reinforce this requirement, the approximation process is typically seen as consisting of three elements:

To adopt or change national laws, rules, and procedures so that the requirements of the relevant EU law are fully incorporated into the national legal order.
To provide the institutions and budgets necessary to carry out the laws and regulations enforcement (‘Practical application’).
To provide the necessary controls and penalties to ensure that the law is being complied with fully and properly

Although countries have considerable discretion in choosing the most appropriate national mechanism to reflect Union environmental obligations, this discretion is limited in some respects by general principles of Union law.

Costs and benefits of compliance with the environmental acquis

Currently, environmental standards within the applicant countries require significant improvement in order to meet the standards set forth in the environmental acquis. Complete compliance with the environmental acquis by the applicant countries, as the EU desires before accession can occur, is difficult to achieve. This is due to the significant amounts of financial resources compliance with the environmental acquis requires. Approximation of the acquis is most costly in the areas of air pollution, water and wastewater management, and solid waste management. Setting up the administrative structure necessary to carry out the environmental acquis is also very expensive.
While compliance with the environmental acquis may require significant investment on the part of the applicant countries, they also stand to receive significant benefits as a result of raising their environmental standards. Compliance with the acquis will result in improved health and quality of life throughout the European Union. It has been demonstrated that benefits to the applicant countries will at least equal the costs, in monetary terms. These benefits will range from better public health to increased tourism. Benefits will occur in areas covered by the water, air and waste directives. The ecosystem will also realize benefits. Half of the total benefits result from reduced air pollution. Many benefits can accrue from increased attention, including improved market participation and access to programs; improved health, particularly reduced respiratory and waterborne diseases; reduced damage and aging of buildings; improved occupational safety; economic growth, particularly that linked to industrial upgrades and tourism; increased crop yields and fish stocks; lower ecological and hazardous risks; and improved quality of life.

The pre-accession period

The EU Acquis is driving West Balkans and Turkey environment institutions to adjust to a changing legal framework that has significant implications for the future scope and organization of their work. Institutional changes are part of a government-wide adjustment that expands the role of environmental protection, increases accountability, and demands improved communication on outputs and objectives of environment programs and investments.

During the short pre-accession period, these countries will have a small window to capture the benefits available before accession when political will for reform is the highest. This small window presents a onetime opportunity to adapt institutions systematically and access additional resources, guidance, and technical assistance before completing the stabilization and association process.

As the obligation to approximate continues after accession, the pre-accession approximation process becomes an opportunity for countries to organise their institutions and procedures and to train their staff for the daily processes and responsibilities of European Union law making, implementation and enforcement