Accelerating Environmentalism or Racing to the Bottom? Automakers, Emissions Standards, and the Single European Car Market, 1985-1992

This paper traces the development of the European Community’s common car emissions standards within the context of the 1992 Program to complete the Single Market. It draws evidence from archival documents of European institutions as well as from position papers by industry groups to analyze exchanges between policymakers and business elites, who similarly desired collective “European solutions,” but for very different reasons. The Commission saw emissions standards as essential to creating a common car market in the region and protecting consumers; the European auto industry, represented by its transnational business associations, recognized that common norms would facilitate economies of scale and would also level the competitive playing field. After the 1985 Single European Act (SEA) changed both the architecture of intergovernmentalism and the objectives of market integration, the new dynamics of consensus demanded bargains between member states and firms on both ends of the environmental spectrum, which ultimately coalesced around harmonization rather than around environmental protections. This paper argues that the emissions standards developed by the EC during this period were driven by exogenous competitive pressure and an endogenous desire for market integration. As a result, the standards that finally entered into force in the early 1990s fell pragmatically in between the greenest member states and those most resistant to enforcing environmental protections on their ‘national champion’ firms.