A View of Europe through the Prism of the Rhine

Journeying down the river Rhine and diving into its past reveals a new endeavour in European history. The Rhine basin demarcates and crosses the borders of nine European states, creating a need for cooperation, posing an inherent risk of conflict, and calling static ideas of space into question. From its source down to its estuary, it inspires various images and definitions of a Europe on the one hand, and different understandings of water management issues on the other, as well as informing how these two dimensions come together. These ideas about Europe may be geographical, based on organizational structures, or charged with symbolism.

This means that the Rhine lies embedded in a web of numerous organizations overseeing navigation matters, environmental pollution, and the course of its stream that are subject to multilevel and multinational governance. For instance, at the beginning of the 1970s, when the European Community took actions to protect the environment, its measures to address water pollution also affected the Rhine. However, the EC was a comparative latecomer to this field. Other international organizations already existed, such as the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine and the Council of Europe. Although these additional actors initially dominated the policy field and, with intermittent success, remained involved with general and specifically Rhine-related issues, the EC quickly came to surpass them.

The Rhine’s geographical Europe includes Switzerland, while the organizational Europe of the EC/EU does not. In order to enable cooperation, space for collaboration has to be constructed around the natural flow of the river, transcending organizational as well as national boundaries.

Researching the Rhine also reveals how politicians and the public filled different understandings of Europe with meaning, and how they addressed broader questions of European integration within the frame of controversies over water and the environment. The course of the river, along with up- and downstream relations and political interests, structured transnational European interactions. Additionally, political debates and correspondence about the Rhine indicate differing approaches to water governance.

The Rhine was an object of concern for industrial interests and a cause of diplomatic and legislative crises, especially in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), France, and the Netherlands. West German debates demonstrate the clash of interests between different usages and actor groups around the Rhine. For instance, German industry in the Ruhr depended heavily on the Rhine for cooling and waste water disposal, which continuously contributed to the river’s pollution. This not only contaminated drinking water downstream in the Netherlands, but also triggered intense domestic debate. When an industrial plant in Switzerland caught fire in 1986, the water used to fight the blaze flowed uncontrollably into the Rhine and polluted the river, leading to a disastrous fish die-off. The images of a dying river evoked by the media made the public aware that stringent environmental protection was needed, and politicians in the affected riparian states worked together to rapidly enact legislation across borders.1

Map of the Rhine course and its major tributaries, English labels, 2013. By Wolfgang Wasser, provided via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

The previous lack of functional transnational collaboration becomes visible in the case of legal proceedings launched by the Dutch government against France over pollution caused by salination from potassium mines in 1980. Because the Netherlands is located downstream and depends on the Rhine for its drinking water supply, the Dutch made continuous efforts to ensure that the other riparian states tackled their polluting activities, if necessary by holding them legally accountable. This caused tensions with France, whose industrial facilities discharged chlorides into the river.2 Despite numerous attempts to collectively tackle water pollution, domestic economic interests often kept the upper hand.

The same was true for the United Kingdom. Even though the UK is not a riparian state, questions around the Rhine directly affected it within the context of the EC/EU and its actions regarding water pollution. The UK found itself in opposition to all other member states and the European Community institutions on this issue. In discussions that stretched over a decade from 1976 to 1986, the UK continuously argued against the other nations’ proposed measures. Apart from its fears that it would prove expensive for various water-polluting industries to adapt to new regulations, the approach chosen by the EC was also contrary to British practice. The UK claimed that competition would be distorted in favour of the states bordering the Rhine and that it would suffer economically due to its geographical disadvantage.3 Looking beyond the natural course of the river thus opens up a wider space of trade relations and organizational structures, one that includes the North Sea. Because the UK could use the sea to dispose of industrial waste, it sought to distance itself from cooperation over environmental protection centred on the Rhine.

The Rhine is a key case study in my Ph.D. project on water pollution governance in the EC/EU. In order to answer the questions of how water was instrumentalized in European integration processes, why governments constantly reduced water management to pollution instead of addressing other issues such as water supply, and why the EC/EU developed into a leading international actor in water politics, I refer repeatedly to specific events and actions involving the Rhine. France, the UK, the FRG, and the Netherlands are the four member states I have chosen which, in parallel to the EC/EU institutions and specific NGOs, lend themselves to the analysis of these questions. Such a venture requires me to visit various national and EU archives. With the support of a GHIL scholarship, I was able to spend two months delving into the UK National Archives.

My stay in London provided me with a rich variety of valuable sources and allowed me to undertake extensive research without the usual nagging time pressure. The National Archives in Kew offer a broad perspective on national and international topics, including European ones. Sources such as documents of internal discussions, written correspondence with businesses and members of the public, and minutes of official debates filled in the missing pieces of my puzzle, which gradually started to show a coherent picture. Furthermore, the scholarship offered an opportunity for valuable conversations. As a result, I was able to integrate new ideas into my project, whether through directly relevant discussions or through insights gleaned indirectly from this highly productive environment.

My journey down the Rhine and into its past ends in a bird’s eye view of the river. It is an ambivalent view, with blue water, surrounded by green and grey, that connects but also divides European cities and countries. Archival sources and historical analysis lay bare the need for cooperation, as well as the inherent risk of transnational conflict. To follow this river downstream, from its source to its estuary, is to follow the history of European water pollution policies from 1975 to 2000.


The featured image shows industrial facilities next to the Lower Rhine near Godorf. Photograph by the Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute, provided via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY 2.0 license.



Cite this blog post
Frieda Ottmann (2023, July 11). A View of Europe through the Prism of the Rhine. German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1ra

  1. Walter Giger, ‘Der Rhein Rot, Die Fische Tot: Brandkatatrophe in Schweizerhalle 1986. Rückblick Und Bilanz’, Z Umweltchem Okotox,19/1 (2007), 11–23; Bundesarchiv, Koblenz, B 295/14971, Bd. 10, Referat U III 3, Presseaktionen zur Rheinwassergüte am 29.6.87 in Bonn und 14. Oder 15.7.87 am Oberrhein, 10 June 1987. []
  2. Archives nationales de France, Paris, 20050521/74, Internationale Rijngroep, Rhin Thèses, undated; Archives nationales de France, Paris, 19810287/25, Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Direction d’Europe, Relations économiques avec les Pays-Bas, 18 Nov. 1980. []
  3. The National Archives, Kew, FCO 30/2966, Cabinet Official Committee on European Questions, Note by the Department of Industry and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Draft EEC Decision on Dangerous Substances in the Aquatic Environment, 14 Aug. 1975; The National Archives, Kew, FCO 30/2967, FCO, European Integration Department, EQ(75)20 Draft Directive on the Control of Dangerous Substances in the Aquatic Environment, 9 Oct. 1975. []

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Frieda Ottmann

She is a researcher at the ANR-DFG funded research project "ELEMENT" on EC/EU environmental policy since. Under the supervision of Kiran Klaus Patel, her dissertation deals with water pollution and the development of water protection at the European level between 1975 and 2000. She obtained an MA in History, with a focus on contemporary history, from the LMU in 2021.

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