Does the European level matter in terms of Environmental issues?

In this blog Christian Wenkel introduces his co-edited (with Eric Bussière, Anahita Grisoni and Hélène Miard-Delacroix) collection, The Environment and the European Public Sphere: Perceptions, Actors, Policies (WHP 2020). The book was recently profiled, with a lengthy free excerpt on the Rachel Carson Center‘s Environment and Society Portal.

The book’s cover

Is it child’s play to formulate environmental policies today? In any case, it seems that the young initiators of and participants in the ‘Fridays for Future’ movement have understood one of the main mechanisms of environmental policies in Europe for more than fifty years. The success of the green parties in the May 2019 European elections and resulting debates in some of the other parties currently in power in several EU member states correspond to a setting of the strike students’ demands on the political agenda. This movement, which mobilises young people from all European countries, and even beyond, around the Swedish girl Greta Thunberg on the issue of climate change, is part of a long-term evolution, marked by the emergence of a new environmental consciousness within the European public sphere, which is emerging at the same time. This evolution includes the gradual institutionalisation of environmental movements, the placing of their themes on the political agenda and, above all, the formulation of environmental policies, following a growing convergence of debates within this European public and political sphere.

The history of environmental policies since the 1970s enables us to better understand the transformations of the political field in Europe in general and illustrates most notably the entrance of new actors, who are investing the political and public sphere, as well as the growing importance of the European level. Both phenomena call for a renewal of historiography. The existence of a link between the formation of the environment as a political object and that of Europe as a political actor is reflected by a certain parallelism between the two trends, an overlap that became noticeable for instance during the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979 – a key moment, both for the construction of Europe and for the institutionalisation of environmental movements within Western Europe.

But while the public sphere is becoming increasingly important in the decision-making process, research on the history of European integration, much influenced by the methods of the history of international relations and those of political history in general, continues to be based mainly on the study of the executive, considering the public sphere only as a secondary factor. However, it seems particularly worthwhile to reverse the perspective on the decision-making process by starting with a study of the public sphere and its long-term dynamics, particularly at the European level.

While the existence of national, regional or local public spheres and their importance for decision-making in European democracies is generally acknowledged, the question of the existence of a European public sphere is a matter for debate – a debate as old as European integration itself. Indeed, the European public sphere does not have a clearly identifiable existence, but rather presents itself as a possibility whose future contours are perceptible through a multitude of public spheres, at different – especially cross-border – levels, or even of communication spheres, which together foster an increasing convergence of debates.

The emergence of a genuine European communication sphere during the 1970s can be described as a first stage on the road to a genuine European public sphere. This decade is characterised by numerous changes in terms of perceptions, political practices and institutions and were indeed a decisive decade, not only for the emergence of a European public sphere and the construction of the European Community, but also for the constitution of the environment as a political object. Crises on various levels, whether political, economic, financial, oil, environmental or even cultural, overlapped during the 1970s and caused a major change in mentalities within European societies. And the two oil crises contributed in particular to raising awareness among Europeans of a new environmental reality. 

The new environmental consciousness results first of all from an awareness of the finiteness of natural resources, put at the centre of the debate by the reports of the Club of Rome, and of a new vulnerability to environmental disasters, which have become more visible through the latest mass-media developments. But this consciousness also emerges against the backdrop of the questioning of a model of almost eternal growth and constant technological progress, a questioning that goes hand in hand with the questioning of the political system by new social movements.

The growth of environmental consciousness across territorial and linguistic borders has also resulted from several environmental disasters, in particular oil spills or technological accidents, ensuing media coverage, which have left particularly strong images in the collective imaginary over the past few decades. These disasters are indeed increasingly perceived as phenomena involving the European sphere as a whole, which creates a certain congruence between geographical space and communication sphere. Distant accidents turned into disasters for an environment which is potentially the same as that of each spectator, even those far from the affected places. If one of the obstacles to the emergence of a European public sphere is the linguistic, and consequently cultural, diversity in Europe, images of environmental disasters helped to build a communication sphere on a European level, by linking those at lower levels, separated in principle by the use of different languages. These images thus served as a focal point for environmental debates across Europe. The circulation of images facilitates the circulation of certain concepts, such as ‘peak of oil’, ‘marée noire’ or ‘Waldsterben’, which structured the debates through their omnipresence.

the environment is a challenge and a political object that in most cases cannot be dealt with at the national level and is addressed either at the local or regional level or most likely at a supranational or global level. And, for some aspects of the environment, only the global level really matters. Climate is thus an archetype of a global public good. The research conducted so far reflects this situation by examining environmental issues mainly on a global or a regional level. Yet very few studies are interested at the European level or adopt a European perspective to study the formation of the environment as a political object. However, such a shift of perspective seems to be justified precisely by the emergence of a new communication sphere at the European level since the 1970s.

Without any doubt the environment is a challenge and a political object that in most cases cannot be dealt with at the national level and is addressed either at the local or regional level or most likely at a supranational or global level. And, for some aspects of the environment, only the global level really matters. The research conducted so far reflects this situation by examining environmental issues mainly on a global or a regional level. Yet very few studies are interested at the European level or adopt a European perspective to study the formation of the environment as a political object. However, such a shift of perspective seems to be justified precisely by the emergence of a new communication sphere at the European level since the 1970s.

The European level in this field seems in fact much more important than it appears at first sight. It even seems possible to invoke the emergence of Europe through the perception of environmental problems and the suggested solutions. The methodological challenge is therefore to grasp this level against a global issue on the one hand and the predominance of the national perspective in the political debate and its influences on political history on the other. Our aim is to reveal European characteristics of the way the environment is perceived, in order to identify the parameters of a specific European environmental consciousness and those of distinct European policies in this field.

By focusing on the simultaneous emergence of the European public sphere and the environment as a political object across Europe, our volume aims to contribute to a renewal of European history, which too often remains compartmentalised by a national prism. The theme provides an opportunity to contribute to a history of the Europeanisation of the continent beyond political turning points and limits. The aim is a European history of Europe that is not confined to any division, as for example that of the Cold War, but is rather based on long-term dynamics, transcending any project of integration or disintegration of the European continent, and shaped by the global challenges of our times.


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