The Water Framework Directive (WFD) is the core legislative instrument in the European Union for the protection of water resources. Adopted in 2000, its objectives were to achieve “good status” for water bodies by 2015 and prevent any further deterioration. However, the European Commission and some stakeholders are rather dissatisfied with the implementation of the Directive so far, in particular with the use of exemptions to the environmental objectives. Exemptions are of paramount importance: they may constitute a significant obstacle to the achievement of the WFD’s objectives as they enable member states to lower the ambition of the Directive and to delay the achievement of good status, thereby undermining the environmental goal of the WFD. Critical voices observe an excessive reliance on exemptions, poor justifications, and great variations in their use. Based on an analysis of 120 policy documents and 15 semi-structured interviews, this article provides explanations for the politics of exemptions in EU water management. It shows that different viewpoints and interpretations on the WFD’s objectives and exemptions were already present in the negotiation phase of the Directive, but remained undefined on purpose. Moreover, dysfunctional decision-making procedures in the Common Implementation Strategy and the lack of political support in WFD implementation were significant obstacles to an agreement on this important issue. Finally, decisions on WFD implementation in member states were often driven by pragmatism. The article explains how the negotiations of the WFD and the EU-level discussion on the implementation of the Directive undermined environmental goals in EU governance; its findings are also relevant for policy fields other than water.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited