EU Environmental Policy

See all EU Environmental Directives and Legislations in this matrix

Protection of the environment is a well-established policy in the European Union starting in 1967 when the first environmental Directive for harmonised classification and the labelling of dangerous chemicals was adopted. However, it was not until November 1973 when it got formalised and the First Environmental Action Programme was agreed. The decision to do so was based on outcomes of the first UN Conference on Environment in Stockholm in 1972, addressing the public and scientific concerns about the “limits of growth”. Today – more than 40 years later and with an impressive body of environmental legislation in place – similar or iden­tical concerns remain: environmental progress through technology has been outweighed by growing consumption and use of natural resource. Well known environmental problems of increas­ing natural resource use, loss of biodiversity, destruction of natural habitats and long-term pollu­tion of most environmental media, continues to exist and quite often even flourish.

With the adoption of the Single European Act in 1987 environment was finally built-in in the European Economic Community (EEC) Treaty and became part of the legal competence of the European Community (now European Union).

 Objectives of the European Environmental Policy

Objectives of the European Environmental Policy are set in the Article 191 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union:

  • preserving, protecting and improving the quality of the environment,
  • protecting human health,
  • prudent and rational utilisation of natural resources,
  • promoting measures at international level to deal with regional or worldwide environmental problems, and in particular combating climate change.

Environmental Action Programmes

Since 1973 until today, the EU had six Environmental Action Programmes (EAPs) where each of them gave the outline for the EU environmental path for a number of years. The results of the final assessment of the 6th EAP show that environmental legislation was consolidated and completed to cover almost all areas of environment, with the exception of soil. But it also shows shortcomings and limitations: in particular, inclusion in the EAP is no guarantee that Member States are actually committed to these objectives. In June 2013, the EU adopted the 7th Environmental Action Programme which will run until 2020 and foresees the adoption of new targets for climate and energy, resource use and a wide range of new measures to make products more efficient, longer lasting and easier to repair and recycle, reduce waste production, to protect citizens more effectively from hazardous chemicals including nano materials, restore Europe’s biodiversity and protect oceans from marine litter. This might require development of the new legislative acts in specific areas which will not be an easy task to achieve.

Types of the EU legislative acts

There are different types of legal acts established by the European Treaties. Some of them have more “weight” than others. They are as follows:

The most powerful form of the EU legislation. They take immediate and direct effect and apply to all Member States equally
The most important legal instrument of the EU. Directives are based on the principle of the approximation of laws. They are legally binding to Member States with regards to the objectives to be achieved and deadlines for implementation but they must be first incorporated into the national law. The EU environmental legislation is mainly in the form of Directives.
They also are legally binding but only to the specific actors or group of actors (firms, sectors etc.). They do not require national implementation measures.

Apart from these three legally binding acts, the Commission has developed a number of other documents to facilitate and manage their legislative work. They are:

  • Green and white papers;
  • Action Programmes;
  • Guidelines;
  • Strategies and Strategy papers;
  • Communications;
  • Conclusions;
  • Recommendations and Opinions;
  • Resolutions and
  • Declarations.

See the EU Environmental acquis chapters

By the end of 1992 European environmental law contained 196 Directives and 40 Regulations. Since then their number has slowly but steadily grown, even if today the Commission seems to be focussing more and more on the Framework Directives, which integrate the more specific pieces of legislation from the past. As of today we can speak about 300 or more legislative acts (see them in section “Documents” of Resource centre) which have been divided into ten broad categories:

  1. Horizontal (general) legislation
  2. Air quality
  3. Waste management
  4. Water quality
  5. Nature protection
  6. Industrial pollution
  7. Chemicals and GMOs
  8. Climate change
  9. Noise
  10. Civil protection

See more details on the Environmental acquis categories.

The collection of all environmental laws is also called environmental acquis (‘acquis communitaire’)and is one of the most important parts of the EU legislation when it comes to the accession of the new countries to the EU. The term acquis in French means “that which has been agreed upon”, and communautaire means “of the community”

(see Approximation process)