The impact of European environmental policy in the Netherlands: national characteristics and choices make the difference

The application of several European environment directives has been a contentious issue in the Netherlands. Here the process has thrown up more barriers to economic activity than in other countries. According to the VROM Council, which advises the government on housing, spatial planning and environment issues, the root of the problem is not the directives themselves but rather certain national characteristics and choices peculiar to the Netherlands. This is the view expressed in the VROM Council’s latest advisory report, which was presented to the Minister of the Environment and Spatial Planning, Jacqueline Cramer, in The Hague on 19 March 2008. The report sets out recommendations for developing and implementing European law and policy.

Implementing European law and policy in the Netherlands could be made more straightforward by taking greater account of specific national characteristics and choices. The Council recommends conducting impact assessments when European policies and laws are first conceived, studying the choices that other countries make and making better use of the scope for freedom of action that European law allows.

There is a tendency these days to favour weaker environmental quality standards for fear of impeding progress on infrastructure projects. The Council believes this is unwise: the Netherlands has much to gain from ambitious European environmental quality standards and should continue advocating sufficiently rigorous European requirements. Stringent EU standards aimed at reducing pollution at source are vital to the Netherlands’ efforts to meet Europe’s strict requirements for environmental quality, and the Netherlands should continue to call for environmental quality standards to be linked to strict source control standards. It is also essential that member states be given latitude in respect of circumstances that are specific to their national situation.

Judicial review proceedings on building and infrastructure projects are initiated much more frequently in the Netherlands than in other EU member states. The Dutch administrative courts work quickly and efficiently. In order to create a truly level playing field in the EU, national differences in administrative law (access to courts, speed of settlement) should be reduced. To that end, the VROM Council calls for an EU-wide discussion on the differences in national legal protection and their impact on the application of, and compliance with, European legal standards.