Brussels Behind Closed Doors

What can a 20 year documentary teach you about making laws

What can a 20 year documentary teach you about making laws

In 1997, I had the honour to work for British Labour MEP, Anita Pollack.   Anita gave me the chance to help pass my first piece of EU environmental legislation.  Anita helped steer through a ground-breaking piece of air quality legislation for the then EU 15.

I learned a lot. I have worked on a lot more environmental and fisheries legislation since.

I decided to mark the 20 years since the adoption of the law to re-watch a UK Channel 4 documentary that followed the directive’s passage. This fly on the wall documentary is uncannily accurate. Today, it catches how, even today, EU laws are developed, negotiated, and agreed. There has not been a programme like it since.

Today, many of the key players involved in the process have retired. Some are still active.

Council Directive relating to limit values for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and lead in ambient air (link) has now been updated. It met some of targets. Air pollution still harms our health in some countries.

What is striking is that even though a lot has changed, many things remain unchanged.

What struck me is that in over 20 years, is that  the reasons given to not act, or to wait before acting, are basically the same. The posturing that economic Armageddon will occur if environmental standards are improved are still too often recited like ancient holy recitals.  Many countries oppose any measures that costs anything to implement.

I have listed a set of personal observations drawn from 3 episodes.

1-15 are things that have changed. 15-65 are as common today as they were 20 years ago.



  1. Political agreement was secured in then record time. It took just 3 years for the law to be developed to final adoption.
  2. In 1997, was the height of the UK’s political influence in the EU under PM Blair. Germany allied with their natural UK ally.
  3. The UK Labour Group held 62 of the UK’s 87 seats.
  4. The S&D Group were the largest group in the EP.
  5. This was an EU of 15 progressive Member States. Austria, Finland and Sweden had recently joined on 1st January 1995.
  6. The UK held the EU Presidency from 1 January to 30 June 1997. Today, the UK skipped their Presidency as they prepare to the leave the EU.
  7. Ken Collins (S&D/UK) was the dominant chair of the Environment Committee. This Scot ruled the Committee with an iron will.
  8. The Environment Committee was the most active legislative committee in the EP. With 45 members only the Foreign Affairs (53), Agriculture (46) and Economic and Monetary (52) were more, but they did not have to trouble themselves with legislating.
  9. I see this time as environment policy’s high-water market. The big hitters of Svend Auken, Denmark’s Minister for the Environment and Energy, and even Ms. Angela Merkel, Germany’s Minister of the Environment (link),  were in office.
  10. The EP was coming of political age. Jacques Santer’s Commission was being pushed out because of wrong doing by French Commissioner Cresson on 15 March 1999.
  11. Ritt Bjerregaard (Denmark/S&D) served as the Environment Commissioner. She was a powerful and determined progressive political player who relished her role.
  12. She was one of the 20 Commissioner. This was a time when 5 large countries got 2 seats and the remaining 15 got 1.
  13. The Channel 4 documentary was the first fly on the wall documentary about the EU passes laws. I don’t think it has been repeated.
  14. Britain showed environmental leadership. A British Presidency secured a British official’s drafted text, steered through by a British MEP.
  15. DG 11/ENV brought forward an annual slew of ambitious legislative proposals
  16. People sometimes forget the heroic task of bringing together quarrelsome families together. It is a wonder to see.
  17. The system is designed on consensus. As soon as a proposal out the door of the Commission, the point of destination is agreement. The point of arrival is never too far from DG Environment’s original intent.
  18. The best chance to influence a Commission’s proposal is before it is issued.
  19. Most lobbyists – NGOs and industry – and Member States step in too late in the day. They get to tinker at the margins.
  20. The UK Mission to the EU (Perm Reps), UKREP, were then still getting used to Labour MEPs. We had been so long out of power for so long they simply never returned any calls. Many Perm Reps today still lack the political touch with their MEPs.
  21. Air pollution is still a problem today.
  22. Today, we know a lot more about Particulate Matter today than we did then. We were not precautionary enough. The real harmful particulate, the ultra-small PM 2.5, were left untouched. The science indicated it was the problem but we not sure enough. We ignored it for a few years. We came back to target it.
  23. Poor Air pollution makes our health worse. It fills up hospitals and spurs death rates upwards. Today, we better understand why.
  24. The Presidency needs to be impartial and not promote their own national interest during their 6 months chairmanship. Some countries find this etiquette hard to follow.
  25. Air pollution is a serious problem in many cities in the summer. Fate intervened in plenary vote in Strasbourg and set off air pollution alerts. These political stunts continue to help win big votes. I really did not create that event.
  26. Voting lists for different national Party groups vary. You need to follow them. Some countries set the votes for their MEPs.
  27. Industry kept submitting their recommendations after the voting lists had been prepared.
  28. The Group Rapporteur writes out the voting lists and many groups are very loyal in following Group voting. If you don’t get in early, you are not going have much impact.
  29. DG ENV has been chronically understaffed for decades. 20 years it dealt with a lot of new proposals. Today, few new laws come from them.
  30. The speaking points  and the language they use from  industry and NGO lobbyists seems unchanged in 20 years. It had no cross-party influence then. Why so few people have changed their game plan from a 20-year losing streak is strange.
  31. Cross party and cross-country voting coalitions work best. In 1997, Northern Member States voted against the South (which included France).
  32. Legislation is all about winning votes and the person with the most votes wins. This is the most fundamental law and too many people just know it, or at least ignore it.
  33. Taking action to help the public’s health is not cheap – €5 billion at the time – but it is cost effective.
  34. Most Governments dislike the idea of informing their own people about things. Public information on air pollution gets people asking for change. It actually bring about change. Many Member States air quality machines were defective and under-reported the real state of air pollution.
  35. If you want to avoid  an issue, just adopt a “review clause”.
  36. Spain, Greece and France all fought against binding air pollution limits back in 1997.
  37. Bringing publicity into legislation makes it a lot more difficult for politicians and civil servants to object.
  38. If your Political Group is strong in the EP, you can steamroller your position through the EP. But, you have to have the votes.
  39. The Chair of the Environment Committee’s  key power is where he puts your item on the agenda. Ken Collins put Anita Pollack’s work at the top of the agenda.  We got to take the file through the Parliament in record time.
  40. A lot of interests against the proposal were just to slow keeping up.
  41. Turning up to meetings with expensive watches on to Social Democrat MEP and talking about “jobs and growth” is a sure way of getting them to reject your position.
  42. Very few politicians beyond the right of the EPP ever bought the “jobs & growth” line in 1997. I don’t think much has changed in 20 years.
  43. Political hard work by a MEP in Brussels is likely to be unrecognised back home by the Party or constituents. Anita Pollack was not re-elected in 1999.
  44. Back home is where political power comes from and remains.
  45. The Member States in 1997 was more powerful than it is today, but it is still the ultimate centre of power.
  46. The Council has and always likely will represent the lions of national self-interest.
  47. The best way to influence National Ministers is back home in their capitals and ideally in their constituency.
  48. Spain did not think the science was clear. They argued that no action should be taken until the science is clear. The real reason for blocking was the cost. When scientific uncertainty is raised experienced players know the likely real reason is money.
  49. Labour veteran politician, the late Michael Meacher, made the key decisions for the UK. Civil servants’ advise and elected politicians decide. They really do.
  50. There is a lot of paper of work.
  51. The key skill is the ability to write clear, precise and concise briefings. Very few people can. Those who can, tend to win more votes.
  52. Back in 1997, most of the negotiations took place over the phone and email. Meetings are there to shake hands on a compromise. Not much has changed.
  53. The Presidency and Commission work very closely together to secure a deal.
  54. The Presidency’s role is to secure a compromise and works to get that.
  55. The Environment Attaches are often friends. When you spend 3 days a week with a group of people, you are likely to become friends with them. Compromise is actively sought.
  56. Member States officials are there to keep the Commission in check.
  57. The EP see their job to scrutinise the Commission, and often to re-table the amendments DG ENV has lost in inter-service consultation
  58. If you don’t do compromise, you need to leave Brussels.
  59. If you are a nomad,  become a MEP. You live from a suitcase in Brussels and your constituency (when the real work starts). Everyone, but French MEPs,  dislike Strasbourg. The real work is done in Brussels.
  60. The UK, whatever Party in power, has always taken a business friendly and pragmatic approach
  61. Scientific expertise is listened to but is seen by many politicians as too cautious. The memory of the WHO calling out BSE wrongly made many MEPs seeing the WHO’s standards as too cautious.Today, scientists are listened to, but politicians decide. It has been like that for thousands of year.
  62. Expert groups of scientist make compromises. It is clear that a Risk Assessment seems to be an art and not a science.
  63. Law making at times looks a like a steamroller driver in a hurry.
  64. Bringing public information into legislation makes it a lot more difficult for politicians and civil servants to object. National governments know this and tend to fight public information.
  65. The best way to make your position seem very reasonable is to get a Swedish MEP to say “in Sweden, we have a system, and it works”. I had the fun job of provoking a very nice Swedish MEP to say this in the Environment Committee one day. All of a sudden, people who we knew were going to vote against us, backed us. Politicians back ambition but not dreams.