Remembering Jean-Gabriel




La Mere Jean, a traditional Lyonnaise bouchon, in Rue des Marroniers, near Place Bellecour.

I had visited Lyon once before, for a meeting during the Water Framework Directive’s intercalibration exercise. This is part of the no-man’s land where science and the EU collide. We spoke the language of scientists but our antennae also became finely tuned to subtexts that reflected the diversity of approaches to environmental management around the EU. Looking back, I can see the extent to which attitudes to public sector management in general shape the way that countries approach EU legislation. I also see, however, a reluctance amongst scientific colleagues to acknowledge this, even though it is widely recognised in the academic literature on environmental policy.

A principle called “subsidiarity” underpins the EU. This means that responsibility for implementing policy is always devolved to the lowest possible level. In the case of environmental policy, this is usually the Member State. This means that there could be 27 separate approaches to any piece of legislation. The intercalibration exercise tried to make sure that all these approaches led to roughly the same end-points. This, in turn, ensures the mythical “level playing field” that the EU is supposed to create.

The principle of the WFD is that we measure the condition of our water bodies in terms of their deviation from their natural or unimpacted state. Several thousand years of human activity complicates our understanding of that ideal condition, leaving plenty of scope for countries to interpret this as they see fit. I also got the impression that the approach to assessing ecological condition also reflected, to some extent, public sector budgets, with those countries with traditions of high taxation and generous provision of public services opting for more labour-intensive methods.   

We came to the exercise with strong ideas about how things ought to be done, and strong reasons why we should not change our methods. Mostly, of course, these discussions were conducted via email but this made the few face-to-face meetings that we did hold that much more important. Sharing meals took on greater significance, as it is here that the friendships were formed that, in turn, reduced the friction when we disagreed. I had particularly warm memories of the meeting we held in Lyon, largely because it was the last meeting at which Jean-Gabriel Wasson, our French colleague, participated fully. Jean-Gabriel was, himself, a tough negotiator but he pointed us towards bouchons such as La Mere Jean where we could enjoy Lyonnaise food at its best, our discussions continuing with a lubrication of local wine. Gradually, we found solutions, often involving compromises that make sense only when you stand back and take a continent-wide perspective. A few months later, Jean-Gabriel was diagnosed with cancer and a year after that he was dead. His legacy is the joined-up view of ecological status that we hammered out at meetings such as this one in Lyon.