The EU environment policy: interview with James Connelly and Rana Izci Connelly

By Gizem Ozturk Erdem | 9 March 2013

To quote this document: Gizem Ozturk Erdem, “The EU environment policy: interview with James Connelly and Rana Izci Connelly”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 9 March 2013,, displayed on 28 September 2022

The first European Environmental Action Plan (EAP) was launched in 1986 and since then, environmental policy has been considered as one of the most important areas of EU legislation. It is however criticised nowadays for its lack of an appropriate long-term strategy. The following interview with two experts in the environment field, James Connelly and Rana Izci Connelly, will help us tackle topics such as the EU's leadership on international environmental policy, Green Accounting in Europe, and as a candidate country to the EU, Turkey’s environmental policy.


Nouvelle Europe: In your article entitled “Environmental policy in the European Union and the contested notion of sustainable development” (2012) you emphasised that “the incorporation of sustainable development in the EU is clearly of symbolic importance; it can also be argued that it provides an environmental criterion for the appraisal of development in EU policy.” How has the notion of Sustainable Development been contested and do you think that the Lisbon Treaty has provided clear policy guidance for “Sustainable Development” within the European Union? 

James Connelly: My view is that the notion of sustainable development, as employed by the EU and elsewhere, is typically used as an umbrella for several incompatible goals. This applies as much to the way it is used in the Lisbon treaty as to its previous uses within the EU. Politically there is something to be said for umbrella concepts as they allow alliances to be forged and thereby provide the conditions in which debate can take place in which the different interpretations and understandings are resolved, or modified or compromised. However, there are occasions where the gap is just too wide and when this happens, especially when it is accompanied by a touching faith in the power of words to solve substantive problems simply through juxtaposition then there is a serious problem. The Lisbon treaty is full of this. The word ‘sustainable’ is used many times as an adjective and its magic power serves to wave away problems. Article Three, for example, states that ‘The Union shall establish an internal market. It shall work for the sustainable development of Europe based on balanced economic growth and price stability, a highly competitive social market economy, aiming at full employment and social progress, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment. It shall promote scientific and technological advance.’ This sounds fine, until one asks the simple question whether sustainable development, in the environmental sense of the term, might run counter to ‘economic growth, full employment and social progress. My point is that rather more is required than simple assertion of this sort.

This problem can be considered in several ways. For example, where there is a contradiction one can simply choose one side and ignore the other. For example, we can choose growth, let that be the driving consideration, and make it look palatable by claiming that it is ‘green’. Or we can choose ‘green’ or ‘sustainability’ and do the converse. What we can’t do in the case of a contradiction of this sort is simply to assert both sides equally, hoping that by the fact of that assertion, reality will conform (or be made to conform) to that assertion. At some point it is vital to accept that the contradiction cannot be resolved without making a hard choice about the interpretation of the concepts. Either that, or abandon the idea of rendering them compatible. Sustainability and sustainable development, if taken seriously, both environmentally and in relation to intergenerational justice, require the abandonment of the commitment to economic growth as measured by the standard indicators such as GDP which lie at the heart both of the EU and of most national governments’ economic policy. So my answer to the question is that I have yet to see anything in any EU documentation which goes beyond word juxtaposition magic. When pressed, however, the EU defaults to the standard model of economic growth and development. It therefore seems to me that it would be more honest for the EU to give up the term or to make a plausible case, followed by a serious policy commitment, to render it consistent and meaningful.

N.E.: On the European Commission’s website it is claimed that “the EU is recognised as a leading proponent of international action on environment and is committed to promoting sustainable development worldwide”. Today however many would argue that EU leadership on environmental issues has been challenged in a rapidly changing global environment. How would you evaluate EU's leadership on international environmental policy?

J.C.: Mixed. I recently co-edited a book on the European Union as a Leader in Climate Change in which the argument was made that the EU, despite the shortcomings identified above, has a real and important track record of success in climate change politics. Granted, this success is not always visible at the major international negotiations. But it is nonetheless there, and the reason that it is not obvious is that it is a background influence, primarily at both the cognitive level of leadership and also leadership by example. Its work is done by the time the world summits appear; besides, it is nation states that negotiate at those summits, not the EU. The EU is, therefore important in setting an example and leading the way on commitment as a body to reductions in carbon emissions, and it is important as a continuous broker and promoter of climate change awareness and possible policy approaches – for example, despite its weaknesses, its emissions trading policy.

N.E: According to the European Commission’s 2012 Progress Report for Turkey, “in the field of environment, there was hardly any progress on horizontal legislation. The environmental agenda of the Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation (MoEU) needs strengthening, as well as coordination and cooperation between relevant authorities at all levels. Overall, preparations in this area are at an early stage.” Based on this report, it is clear that Turkey should work harder to complete this chapter. For you, what should be the major environmental policy priorities for Turkey to comply with the environmental acquis in the coming years?

Rana Izci Connelly: In the field of environment, there has been substantial progress in various sectoral policies in Turkey to align with the EU acquis since 1999. However, this progress is uneven and does not include most of the horizontal legislation which in turn complicates full compliance with the continuously developing EU acquis. Briefly, this uneven progress and difficulties of  approximation of  horizontal legislation mainly arise from four difficulties which are likely to affect the future of the Turkish environmental agenda.

First, the major challenge for Turkish environmental policy is to integrate environmental concerns into developmental priorities. Turkey is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and economic priorities usually prevail over environmental concerns. Recent urbanisation trends, as well as the extensive development of water and energy projects, which have created increasing concerns over nature protection, clearly demonstrate this priority.

Secondly, complying with the EU environmental acquis is a very costly and long term process. The current low credibility of the EU membership process, together with Turkey’s ambitious development plans, often result in prioritisation of economic growth over environmental protection.

Thirdly, the low level of public consultation creates big concerns for the sustainability of development plans – especially the location of new energy plants and mining activities in areas with rich biological diversity and/or with high ecological sensitivity. Therefore, proper implementation of environmental impact assessments is essential not only for nature protection but also for sustaining human development and equity.

Fourthly, the fragmented nature of Turkey’s administrative structure causes confusion concerning the relative responsibility of state institutions for the protection of nature. Water protection and climate change policies are good examples which show the importance of establishing and strengthening effective cooperation among state institutions as well as between state institutions and NGOs.


James Connelly teaches political theory, contemporary political philosophy and environmental politics at Southampton Solent University. He co-authored Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice, co-edited The EU as a Leader in Climate Change Policy and published several articles on environment ethics and politics. Rana Izci Connelly is Assistant Professor and teaches environmental politics at the European Union Institute at Marmara University.


To go further:

On Nouvelle Europe's website (in French)

Source pictures: Professor James Connelly & Green tree, flickr