France condemned over EU habitats directive

European Court of Justice supports Commission complaint over impact assessment exemption

The European Court of Justice told France today it must bring its nature protection laws into line with EU legislation to safeguard rare habitats and species. According to the court ruling, French laws exempting some infrastructure projects from environment impact assessments (EIAs) contravene the 1992 habitats directive.

The ruling marks the first time that an EU country has been condemned by the court for a substantive breach of the habitats directive, though the European Commission has accused many member states of failing to comply.

Under the directive, EU countries are obliged to establish regulatory structures to protect a list of protected "special areas of conservation," which, along with protected areas under the 1979 birds directive, will form the Natura 2000 network. All planned developments threatening the sites must undergo EIAs, and projects which would have adverse effects on them are only permitted in restricted circumstances.

The court upheld the Commission's complaint that France was not in compliance with the directive because projects costing less than euros 1.83m (FRF12m) and those concerning the electricity, gas and telecommunications networks are exempted from EIAs under French law. The court said the exemptions were not justified under the margin of discretion allowed to member states to waive assessments for projects not "likely to have a significant effect" on the site.

Marta Ballesteros of NGO the Worldwide Fund for Nature hailed the court's decision as a "very important" development. "It's the very first judgement giving interpretation of what some of the articles in the directive mean and what countries should put in their national law," she told ENDS Daily today.

In a separate section of the ruling, the court threw out a Commission call for France to be condemned for failing to explicitly prohibit deterioration of wildlife sites protected under EU law. The judgement rules this complaint to have been inadmissible because the Commission raised issues not mentioned at the outset of the case. The conclusion contradicts an opinion on the case delivered by a court advocate general last year (ENDS Daily 20 September 1999).

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031; the full text of the judgement in case C-256/98 can be found here.

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