The document, summarising the negotiating positions of the 15 EU states, shows Britain has not joined a group of northern European countries, including Germany and the Scandinavians, in pressing for the fastest rates of curbing fumes.
Instead Britain always takes the other side, joining with poorer southern European countries like Greece and Spain, with Ireland and sometimes with France in worrying about the economic damage done to the motor and oil industries and to consumers by too fast a rate of progress.
Friends of the Earth said the report ''shatters John Major's claim that the Government's air quality policies make Britain the 'Clean Man of Europe'.''
Roger Higman, FoE's transport campaigner, said: ''The UK is in the more reactionary group of countries. The Danes, Germans, Swedes, Austrians and Finns are the real clean men of Europe.''
But a source inside the European Commission said Friends of the Earth was being unfair in portraying Britain as always siding with the poorer, southern European nations against the northerners. ''The UK and France often act as the fulcrum between these two groups.''
Ministers from the 15 EU states are negotiating two new sets of laws proposed by the Commission covering improvements in fuel quality and car exhaust standards up to 2010.
They are due to meet in June, but before the two directives are finally agreed and adopted agreement also has to be reached with the European Parliament. So the directives are not expected to become law until well into next year.
In the cars directive the commission proposed exhaust standards to come into force in 2000, with still tougher standards for 2005 - but these would only be "indicative" and not firmly decided on until a review next year.
According to the document, seen by The Independent, Germany, Austria and the Scandinavian countries wanted the 2005 value to be set now, but Britain sided with Ireland, France, Spain and Italy in judging this ''inappropriate''.