European industrial society developed apace for a century (1860-1960) without a second thought for the ecological consequences of its growth. As we saw in the chapter on regional development, economic activities centred on certain places, for geographical and economic reasons, with no regard to the environment [see section 12.1]. But, virtually every human activity and industrial process affects the natural environment, either through atmospheric or water pollution, noise pollution or even by the destruction of the countryside. Although environmental damage had been going on for a century, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that it took on alarming proportions, for three main reasons: increased town-dwelling, very rapid economic expansion and the ill-considered use of new production techniques and of new products, chiefly derived from oil.
In the mosaic of States called Europe the common market in terms of pollution was established before the common market in goods. Polluted air and water moved freely across borders well before the idea emerged to open them to foreign goods. Each European State was thus immediately concerned by what was happening in its neighbouring countries with regard to the environment. It must not be forgotten that virtually every large lake and large watercourse in Europe is shared by two or more States, that the Mediterranean and the North Sea represent a common heritage for several European States and that those seas, lakes and rivers are used as common dumping grounds for the industrial waste of several countries. In the field of nature conservation and the protection of wildlife, too, a country that protected migratory birds or endangered species would be wasting its time if its neighbours killed them. If the mess was to be stopped, action therefore had to be taken together.
Not only neighbourliness, but also the comparable socio-economic development of the European countries, argued in favour of common action to protect the environment. The phenomena common to all European States of the expansion of industrial activities, the increase in the urban population within megalopoles and the drift away from increasingly large tracts of territory originally used and maintained by agriculture required comparable measures and means to be utilised in the Member States to cope with them.
Common environmental problems needed common solutions. Short of seriously affecting the competitive capacity of its economy, no European State could hope to resolve its environmental problems by acting on its own. The fight against pollution in fact imposes certain expenditure on industrialists to adapt their products or their manufacturing processes. Such expenditure is all the greater, the more stringent are the standards laid down by the public authorities. If a State of the Union imposed stringent and costly anti-pollution measures on its industry, it might penalise it vis-à-vis its competitors from other States which were less attentive to the damage caused by pollution or which had different ideas as to how to apportion expenditure for the fight against pollution. Competition would therefore be distorted in the common market. It was therefore necessary for the same rules to be imposed on all European producers.
The free movement of goods within the common market would also be affected if each Member State laid down different standards for products put on sale on its market. The country, which laid down more stringent standards than its neighbours, for example, on restrictions on the noise of certain engines or on the exhaust emissions of motor vehicles, would impede imports of related products from other countries. Protection against pollution and noise could thus quickly deteriorate into protection against foreign products. In other words, national environment policy could be used to thwart the internal market in a very subtle manner. On the other hand, environmental policy can make a huge contribution to growth, jobs and quality of life, with environmental measures having a positive impact on job creation, public health and healthcare costs, energy security and energy efficiency.
Lastly, it has to be said that the European institutions are better placed than governments to have a long-term view of environmental problems and requirements. Even when they are certain of remaining in office for fairly long time, national governments, being preoccupied with short-term problems, are rarely in a position to plan long-term strategies in this non-profit-making sector. Its relative detachment from the day-to-day problems peculiar to each Member State and its right of initiative with regard to the harmonisation of legislation make it possible for the European Commission to conceive a long-term programme against pollution. Let us not forget, however, that in the case of the common environment policy, as in any other common policy, the "Eurocrats" of Brussels (the Commission), assisted by national technocrats (scientific and administrative committees), only propose the measures considered scientifically and technically necessary to protect the environment. It is the politicians in the European Parliament and the Council who take the final decisions [see section 4.3], taking into consideration the industrial and political cost of precautionary measures proposed. These decisions, often difficult to take, concern all Member States, although they are implemented with varying efficiency by the individual Member States.
The cost of the overexploitation of natural resources is far greater than the current clean-up activities such as waste and waste-water treatment. Moreover, the new environmental technologies, called "clean-technologies" present a dual advantage for European countries, since, on the one hand, they generate less waste and reduce emissions and, on the other, they minimise the use of natural resources. By improving the production process in terms of energy and natural resources efficiency, new technologies can reduce the dependence of the European Union on costly oil imports. By increasing product lifetime and by facilitating reuse and recycling, clean technologies can make more attractive the labour-intensive activities of control, repair and recycling.
To ensure better use of public resources while avoiding duplication on the part of European laboratories, very costly environmental research needs to be coordinated in a European research and technological development programme [see section 18.2.2]. Likewise, the control of jointly established standards requires the elaboration and implementation of efficient measurement methods recognised by all, the preparation of type-approved apparatus and, on occasion, the setting up of trans-European monitoring networks or even joint supervision bodies. Therefore, the objectives of the common environment policy can be linked to the objectives of the common industrial, energy, transport and employment policies.
One of the most urgent problems calling for a common approach was the elimination of industrial and urban waste. Even if the damaging effect of waste did not go beyond the confines of a region, European action would be necessary if the elimination or re-use of waste entailed substantial cost and led to differences between the conditions of production and distribution of certain goods in the common market. The most important waste for the EU is obviously waste whose disposal, owing to its toxicity, non-biodegradability, bulk or whatever reason, requires a solution that goes beyond a region or even a State.