European Union Leadership in Global Environmental Politics

by Ron Böhler

Essay 2011 22 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: European Union



Since climate change1 and related facets of environmental protection became increasingly global(ised) issues in the early 1970s, the international community attempts to address these questions collectively as well as substantially (Kelemen 2011, p. 37). Observers and commentators of international environmental negotiations thereby repeatedly hinted at the necessity of a strong leader in global environmental governance as a precondition to urge agreements on common approaches to climate change (Grubb and Gupta 2000a, pp. 3-12). Otherwise, the successful and sustainable mitigation of global warming and ecocides on a large scale might fail. The question is still highly controversial, why of all actors on the global scale the European Union (EU)2, which accounts for approximately 24% of hazardous greenhouse gases (Hovi et al. 2003, p.2), shall be a leader in environmental politics and climate protection?

The main argument developed in this paper apprehends the European Union as a leader prima facie in international environmental politics. Whether the European Union fills a pivotal leading role according to, for instance, climate protection and sustainable development is a doubled feature. As will be argued below, the EU has undertaken massive efforts and strategic action to promote the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) and mobilised other members of the international climate regime to follow the European ‘leadership by example’ (Schunz 2011, pp.6-10). This dimension is clearly outward-looking and aims for behavioural change of other affected actors. Leading by example also calls for a certain degree of credibility to offer incentives to other players to pursue environmental goals. In respect of 1 Environmental politics marks the hypernym of a broad range of issues and touches upon topics like climate change, global warming, biodiversity, energy policy, waste management, sustainable development and many more. As the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will be the focus of the empirical part of the paper, the terms environmental policy and climate policy will be used interchangeably.

2 For the sake of simplicity, the essay will also refer to ‘first pillar’ competences under the Treaty on European Union (TEU, 1993) – technically the European Community – as the EU.

GHGE reduction, the European Union faces delays in implementing targets insistently and thus loses ground in international environmental governance to developing countries it is supposed to guide.

The first part of the essay explains in depth the theoretical approach of Europe´s ‘actorness’ in international environmental negotiations as well as the concept of political leadership, which is based upon the former. The subsequent empirical analysis distinguishes, in conformity with theoretical considerations, between the EU´s virtual leadership within the climate governance regime through the promotion of greenhouse gas emission reductions on the one hand and a factual leading role in the implementation of inner-European environmental protection legislation on the other hand. The empirical part of the essay focuses mainly on international negotiations and European implementation mechanisms for GHGE reductions since the Kyoto negotiations in 1997.


International negotiations constitute a playground for many actors with actual intervening or veto power, but only a few of them in reality exercise a leading role in a certain policy area. Some scholars oblige the European Union to take on a leading role in international climate governance (Jaeger at al. 1997) while others believe that the EU has own motivations to do so (Schmidt 2008; Schreurs and Tiberghien 2010; Kilian and Elgström 2010). Still others doubt the externality of European aspirations at large and suspect its political elites of abusing environmental politics as a tool to increase their legitimacy for decision-making in that field and as a result accumulate further competences (Sprungk and Lenschow 2010; Blühdorn 2007; Baker 2007).


The analysis of the EU´s role in international climate politics is based on the prerequisite of perceiving the EU as some kind of an actor. In order to perform politically on the global stage, the European Union has to accumulate sufficient structures and capacities to build some kind of ‘actorness’, hereinafter broadly defined as the ‘capacity to behave actively and deliberately in relation to other actors in the international system’ (Sjøstedt 1977, p.16). The degree of this type of European actorness in global environmental politics is, however, still divisive. The EU´s attributions in this field range from ‘aspiring leader’ (Grubb and Gupta 2000a, p. 10) or ‘effective international environmental actor’ (Vogler 1999, p. 24) to a ‘green normative power’ (Falkner 2006) as well as a potential ‘green giant’ (Vig and Faure 2004) to, finally, the recognition of its ‘global leadership and “agenda setting” role’ (Bretherton and Vogler 2006, p. 101). They all have in common the perception of the EU as not less than an actor capable of exercising power in global climate politics. Jupille and Caporaso satisfactorily substantiate that the European Union – with the entry into force of the Treaty on European Union at the latest – meets their self-developed and intertwining criteria of an international agent on this subject, i.e. external recognition, authority or legal competence respectively, autonomy from other actors and internal cohesion (1998, pp.215-221). This conceptualisation is prerequisite to what will be hereinafter developed as international political leadership that is based on the competences of the former. European actorness relating to environmental issues in the global arena will subsequently be assumed.

The actor-centred approach of leadership rests upon the simple logic that ‘there can be no leaders without followers’ (Karlsson et al. 2011, p.89). Some agents in international politics may thus be capable and willing to set examples for others and significantly shape the outcome of international bargaining through accumulated resources or persuasive power, while others are not and rather emulate these actor´s ambitions. Most notably, a leader needs beyond ‘hard power’ resources such as command or coercion also the potential of ‘soft power’ mechanisms like communicative skills or a vision to align and mobilise other actors for a sought or desired objective (Nye 2008, p.67).

Following the typology of leadership modes provided by Young, a political leader features structural, entrepreneurial and intellectual leadership (1991, pp.287-302). These modes are by no means detached but intertwined and explain to a lesser extent leadership as a status than as the degree of executing a pivotal role. Structural leadership is hence a primarily authority-based concept highlighting the ability to ‘[translate] the possession of material resources into bargaining leverage’ (ibid., p.288). Such capabilities can either be positive or negative incentives due to economic power or actual influence resulting from political weight within the international governance structure, highly dependent on the issue at stake as well as on the institutional environment and policy-making procedures. Entrepreneurial leadership outlines the agent´s ‘negotiating skill to frame issues in ways that foster integrative bargaining and to put together deals that would otherwise elude participants’ (ibid., p.293). Such a decisive position within international regimes is inevitably based on structural power foundations and furthermore demands from the actor to be well-equipped with negotiating and diplomatic tools to enable mutually agreed stipulations. The third mode, intellectual leadership, relies on ‘intellectual capital or generative systems of thought that shape the perspectives of those who participate in institutional bargaining’ (ibid., p.298). The focus of this mode is on the (re)definition of interests through innovative action or ideational guidance.

Due to scarce academic discussions in this matter, the classification by Young has become more or less scientific consensus among scholars studying the behaviour and varying roles of international actors, even though they slightly re-brand the modes. Grubb and Gupta for instance speak also of structural as well as instrumental and directional leadership (2000b, p.23), but give explicit credit to Young. The same applies to the conceptual framework by Wurzel and Connelly, who paraphrased intellectual into cognitive leadership (2011a, p.13).


With respect to the EU, it has to be mentioned that European international environmental actorness is certainly related to internal decision-making processes and the institutional set-up, in which policies are adopted. In plain words, supranational policy-making, i.e. when the European Commission holds legal competence to speak for the EU-27 with a single voice in terms of a common foreign policy (cf. Barnes 2011), is expected to result more likely in international actorness than intergovernmentalist foreign policy-making ‘since it allows each of the 27 EU Member States to block decisions using their veto power’ (Groenleer and van Schaik 2007, p.970). With the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, quality majority voting was introduced to large parts of EU environmental policy decisions (Art. 95; Art. 175). Furthermore, the European Parliament was from then on involved through the co-decision procedure and gained political weight in EU environmental policy-making next to the European Commission, the Council of Ministers, the European Court of Justice and a myriad of interest groups (Lenschow 2010). Although these entities one by one potentially possess veto power, Costa demonstrates that the number of involved actors can be de facto narrowed down to a ‘small and unnoticed body composed of national and EU officials’ (Costa 2009, p.135). Other scholars find that the institutional set-up of the European multi-level governance system does not necessarily predetermines the degree of EU external actorness (Chaban et al. 2006, p.251) The essay will follow this argument as critics fail to explain the link between the European governance architecture and comprehensive inward- as well as outward-looking environmental endeavours exercised by the European Union and its Member States.

This is first of all a matter of each Member States´ aspiration and motivation to take action. Schmidt, for instance, is convinced that ‘European policy on climate change is in fact grounded on the precautionary principle, whose overarching purpose is the avoidance of risk. [In case] that human activities might be causing serious harm, society should take appropriate steps to prevent that harm from occurring.’ (2008, p. 85) As will be seen later on, the European Union surmounts potential constraints in the decision-making and policy-taking procedure with the aim of fostering the global environmental regime. Recent studies have shown that the European competitive governance structure led European States seek for environmental agreements far beyond the lowest common denominator and hence urge the EU as a corporate actor to strive for international harmonization in this policy field (Holzinger and Sommerer 2011; Schreurs and Tiberghien 2010, pp.29-31). Whenever referring to EU foreign environmental policy-making below, the EU will thus be thought of as a coherent actor.

Whether the EU can be considered one of the backbones of international environmental governance is a double-edged sword along both an internal and external dimension. Whilst the former one focuses on sustainable performance and the Europe-wide implementation of environmental legislation in accordance with set ambitions and intentions, the latter dimension targets the EU´s foremost contribution to international climate protection in comprehensive respects. This two-tier empirical analysis has become necessary since it was argued that Europe´s negligences to profoundly implement environmental legislation has led to a lack of credibility of the EU within the international climate regime (Gupta and Ringius 2001).



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european union leadership global environmental politics


  • Ron Böhler



Title: European Union Leadership in Global Environmental Politics