Water is in constant motion. Water also facilitates the movement of ships, fish and all other animals and plants living in water. The health of rivers, lakes and oceans has to take into account water’s movements across geopolitical borders. Given this, regional and international cooperation has been deeply embedded in the European Union’s water-related policies since the 1970s.

From its source in the Black Forest in Germany to its delta on the Black Sea coast, the Danube crosses mountains, valleys, plains, countless towns, including Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Belgrade, and 10 countries. In its journey of almost 3 000 kilometres, the Danube converges with tributaries carrying water from nine additional countries. Today, millions of people across the European continent are connected in one way or another to the Danube and its tributaries.

What happens upstream has an impact downstream, but not only. It is clear that pollutants released upstream will be transported downstream, but ships travelling upstream can facilitate the spread of alien species, such as the Asian clam moving westwards in the Danube, which can colonise large areas often at the expense of native species. When pollutants or alien species enter that water body, they instantly become a shared problem.

Governance beyond the land mass

Current governance structures are almost entirely based on a common allocation of the land mass into territories. We can agree on common rules that apply within a defined area and set up bodies to enforce these common rules. We can even agree on economic zones at sea and make claims to the resources those areas contain. Certain vessels can be authorised to fish in those zones; companies can be granted rights to explore minerals in the seabed. But what happens when the fish migrate north or floating islands of plastic wash up on your shores?

Unlike the land mass, water is in constant motion, whatever its form may be, from a single raindrop to a strong ocean current or storm surge. Fish stocks and pollutants, including invisible chemicals such as pesticides and visible pollutants such as plastics, do not respect geopolitical borders and economic zones defined by international agreements between states. Like the air we breathe, cleaner and healthier rivers, lakes and oceans require a wider approach to governance based on regional and international cooperation.

River basin management

The approach for wider cooperation is one of the key principles behind the EU’s water policies. The EU Water Framework Directive — one of the cornerstones of EU water legislation — sees a river system as a single geographical and hydrological unit, irrespective of administrative and political boundaries. The Directive requires Member States to develop management plans by river basin. Given that many of Europe’s rivers cross national boundaries, these river basin management plans are developed and implemented in cooperation with other countries, including European countries that are not members of the EU.

The cooperation around the Danube is one of the oldest initiatives of transboundary water management, dating back to the late 1800s. Over time, the focus has shifted from navigation to environmental issues such as pollution and water quality. Today, the initiatives to ensure the sustainable use and management of the Danube are coordinated around the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), which brings together 14 cooperating states (EU and non-EU alike) and the EU itself, with a mandate over the whole Danube river basin, which includes its tributaries as well as groundwater resources. The ICPDR is recognised as the body responsible for developing and implementing the river basin management plan for the Danube. There are similar governance bodies for other international river basins in the EU, including the Rhine and the Meuse.

The Water Framework Directive also requires public authorities to involve the public in decision-making processes in connection with the development and implementation of river basin management plans. Member States or river basin management authorities can carry out this public participation requirement in various ways. For example, the ICPDR carries out public participation mainly by actively involving stakeholder organisations and consulting the public during the development phase of river basin management plans.

Given their vast dimensions, governance of the oceans remains an even more complex challenge.

Oceans — From trade routes to deep-sea mining rights

For most of human history, seas and oceans were a mystery to be explored by all seafarers. Traders, invaders and explorers used them as transport corridors, connecting one harbour to another. Controlling key harbours and the sea routes connecting them resulted in political and economic power. It was not until the beginning of the 17th century, at the height of national monopolies over certain trade routes, that this approach of exclusive access was challenged.

Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius claimed inMare liberum(Freedom of the seas) in 1609 that seas were international territory and no state could claim sovereignty over them. Grotius’s book has not only offered legitimacy to other seafaring nations taking part in global trade but also played a fundamental role in shaping the modern law of the sea. Until the early 1900s, a nation’s rights covered the waters within a cannon shot (corresponding to approximately 3 nautical miles or 5.6 kilometres) of its coastline.

The international discussion that started over nations’ right to access to sea trade routes has over time changed to a discussion over the right to extract resources. During the 20th century, almost all countries[1] extended their claims. These claims vary between 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) of territorial waters to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) for exclusive economic zones and 350 nautical miles (650 kilometres) for the continental shelf. The current international law is largely shaped by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which entered into force in 1994.

In addition to introducing common rules for defining different national jurisdiction zones, the Convention stipulates that states have the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment and calls for international and regional cooperation. Moreover, the Convention refers to the principle of common heritage of mankind, which holds that cultural and natural heritage in defined areas (in this case the sea bed, ocean floor and subsoil) should be preserved for future generations and protected from exploitation.

In such complex governance structures, it is always a challenge to agree on common rules and strike the right balance between protection of the natural heritage and economic interests.

The Convention’s ratification took almost two decades, mainly due to disagreements over ownership and exploitation of minerals in the deep sea bed and ocean floor. The Convention established an international body, the International Seabed Authority, to control and authorise mining exploration and exploitation in the sea bed beyond the limits of the area claimed by countries.

Other governance structures and conventions cover different aspects of ocean governance. For example, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a United Nations agency specialising in shipping, and it works, among other things, on preventing marine pollution caused by ships. Initially, its marine protection work focused mainly on oil pollution, but in recent decades it has been extended through a number of international conventions to cover chemical and other forms of pollution, as well as invasive species transported by ballast waters.

Pollution in water can be due to pollutants released directly to water or released to air. Some of those pollutants released into the atmosphere can later end up landing on land and water surfaces. Some of these pollutants affecting aquatic environments are also regulated by international agreements, such as the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants, the Minimata Convention on Mercury and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution.

Governance in Europe’s seas — Global, European and regional

The EEA report State of Europe’s Seas concludes that Europe’s seas can be considered productive, but they cannot be considered ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’. Despite some improvements, some economic activities at sea (e.g. overfishing of some commercial fish stocks and pollution from ships or mining) and pollution from land-based activities are increasingly putting pressure on Europe’s seas. Climate change is also adding to these pressures.

Some of these pressures are linked to activities carried out outside the EU’s borders. The reverse is also true. Economic activities and pollution originating in the EU has impacts outside the EU’s borders and seas. Regional and international cooperation is the only way these pressures can be tackled effectively.

In this context, it is not surprising that the European Union is a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In such cases, EU laws conform to international agreements but set specific objectives and governance structures to manage and protect common resources. For example, the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive aims to achieve good environmental status in Europe’s seas and protect the resources upon which economic and social activities depend. To this end, it sets overall objectives and requires EU Member States to develop a strategy and implement relevant measures. The common fisheries policy sets common rules for managing the EU’s fishing fleet and preserving fish stocks.

Similar to international agreements, the EU’s marine policies call for regional and international cooperation. In all of the four regional seas around the EU (the Baltic Sea, the North-East Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea), EU Member States share marine waters with other neighbouring coastal states. Each of these regional seas has a cooperation structure set up by different regional agreements.

The EU is a party to three of the four European regional sea conventions: the Helsinki Convention for the Baltic Sea; the OSPAR Commission for the North-East Atlantic; and the Barcelona Convention for the Mediterranean Sea. The Bucharest Convention for the Black Sea needs to be amended to allow the EU to accede to it as a party. Despite their varying ambition levels and slightly different governance structures, all these regional sea conventions aim to protect the marine environment in their respective areas and to foster closer cooperation for coastal states and signatories.

At the global level, the UN Environment’s Regional Seas Programme promotes a shared ‘common seas’ approach among the 18 regional sea conventions around the world. The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also includes a specific goal, Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life below water, aimed at protecting marine and coastal ecosystems. The EU has been an active contributor to the 2030 Agenda process and has already taken measures to start its implementation.

When stakes go beyond states

Common objectives and rules work best when implemented properly and respected by all those involved. National authorities can set fishing quotas but their implementation relies on fishing fleets. Using illegal gear, taking fish smaller than the minimum size allowed, fishing in other countries’ waters or overfishing cannot be eliminated without compliance by fishermen and enforcement by authorities. The impacts — in this case, a decline in fish populations, a rise in unemployment in fishing communities or higher prices — are often felt by larger parts of society and across several countries.

Recognising that various stakeholders impact the overall health of oceans, discussions previously led by governments have increasingly been involving non-state stakeholders. At the latest United Nations Oceans Conference held in June 2017 in New York, governments, non-state stakeholders, such as academia, the scientific community and the private sector, made close to 1 400 voluntary commitments to take concrete action to protect the oceans, contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 14. One of these commitments was made by nine of the world’s largest fishing companies, with a combined revenue of about one third of the top 100 companies in the fishing sector. They pledged to eliminate illegal catches (including the use of illegal gear and catches over quota) from their supply chains. As more companies and people make such pledges and take action, together we could make a difference.

[1]  Only two countries, Jordan and Palau, and some areas still apply the 3 nautical mile rule.

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Last modified: January 15, 2021