The following essay by Dr. Götz Reichert is a summary of his recent published article entitled: Transboundary Water Cooperation in Europe – A Successful Multidimensional Regime?, which appears in Vol. 1.1., 2016, pp. 1–111, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law. Dr. Reichert is head of the Environment Department at the Centre for European Policy in Freiburg, Germany. He can reached at goetz.reichert [at] t-online.de.
Europe’s diverse aquatic environments continue to face pressure, often suffering from pollution, over-abstraction, morphological alterations, loss of biodiversity, floods and droughts. Throughout the European continent, 75 transboundary river basins have been identified. Given that over 60% of the European Union (EU) is covered by transboundary river basins and 70% of European catchment areas are shared between EU Member States and other European countries, pressures on rivers, lakes and aquifers constitute a considerable challenge to international cooperation. In Transboundary Water Cooperation in Europe, I analyze the multidimensional regime for the protection and management of European transboundary freshwater resources, which is composed of different but increasingly intertwined legal systems: international water law, water law of the European Union (EU), and domestic water legislation.
The emergence of this complex regime was triggered and facilitated by a general paradigm shift in water policy and law in the 1980s and 1990s towards an ecosystem-oriented approach, which is guided by the overall leitmotif of sustainable development and operationalized through the concept of integrated water resources management. It is based on the notion that the various components of the aquatic environment should be managed in an integrated manner throughout their natural catchment area, irrespective of administrative or national boundaries. Consequently, the different legal systems applying to transboundary freshwater resources in Europe are also increasingly interlinked and harmonized so as to function as an integrated whole. In order to shed light on the nature, fabric, and functioning of the resulting multidimensional regime, my article takes a closer look at its various dimensions.
Today, there are over 100 bi- and multilateral international agreements pertaining to rivers, lakes and aquifers in basins and sub-basins shared by riparian countries throughout the European continent, ranging from the two global framework conventions to basin-specific agreements. The first part of the article provides an overview of the origins, regulatory structure and main substantive and managerial elements of current international water law in Europe. It shows that the obligations of the EU, its Member States and other European countries, as parties to various international water agreements in Europe, function as “transmission belts” for the transposition of substantive and managerial provisions from international water law to EU water law and the domestic water legislation of EU Member States and other European countries.
Since 2000, however, the EU’s Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC (WFD) has generated the defining impulses for the further development of the unfolding regime on transboundary freshwater resources in Europe. Most importantly, the WFD set the legally binding objective of attaining “good water status” by the end of 2015. Accordingly, the second part of the article provides for an accessible introduction to the unique legal nature and normative clout of EU water law, which is indispensable to understand transboundary water cooperation in Europe. It focusses on the main substantive and managerial elements of current EU water law relevant for cooperation between riparian countries, both within the EU and beyond. The pivotal instrument in this respect is the international river basin management plan, which is provided for by EU water law, but may be developed and implemented within international river commissions established under international water law. In this way, substantive and managerial provisions of EU water law are transposed to international water law in Europe.
Against the background of this hybrid interface between the different dimensions of the transboundary water regime in Europe, the third part of the article looks at the resulting integration of EU water law and international water law. Illustrated with examples of internationally shared river basins, such as the Danube and the Rhine, the analysis demonstrates that EU water law is, to a growing extent, influencing transboundary water cooperation not only within the European Union, but also beyond its territory.
Given the recently expired deadline for attaining the WFD’s objective of attaining “good water status” and the mixed results transboundary water cooperation has yielded so far, the article finally asks whether the elaborate and complex regime for the protection and management of transboundary freshwater resources in Europe is actually living up to its ambitious aspirations. In this respect, I suggest an optimistic conclusion. The different legal dimensions of the regime have the potential to fulfill those functions they are most capable of performing, thereby allowing for the development of solutions tailored to the particular needs of a specific freshwater ecosystem. EU water law has introduced a common vision, objective, terminology and managerial framework, thereby creating overall compatibility and complementarity within the regime. Furthermore, the normative clout of EU water law creates legally binding obligations for EU Member States and provides for robust enforcement procedures under judicial review. With regard to procedural and managerial aspects in a transboundary context, international river commissions established under international water law provide a stable institutional framework for the development of expertise, mutual trust and common approaches on transboundary water cooperation. On this basis, the multidimensional regime for the sustainable protection and integrated management of transboundary freshwater resources in Europe has the potential to be further developed in order to fulfill its goals.
The entire article is available here.