EU liability white paper watered down again

Modifications agreed on habitat damage, discussions focus on burden of proof

Legal protection for natural habitats has been removed from the scope of a draft EU white paper on making companies responsible for damage they cause to the environment, sources in the European Commission have confirmed. The move is aimed at getting the long-delayed white paper adopted by the Commission before the end of March.

Discussions will now focus on determining where responsibility for establishing liability for environmental damage, or burden of proof, should lie. Earlier drafts of the white paper proposed that companies should be made responsible for rebutting plausible claims against them. This would reverse the current legal situation in most, but not all, EU member states.

The difficulty in evaluating and costing up damage to habitat, comprising biodiversity and "unowned land," has been one of most contentious areas in a series of "difficult" discussions within the Commission over recent weeks, sources told ENDS Daily. Last week commissioners rejected the latest version of the white paper, and sent it back to the environment department for another reworking.

The department hopes it has now broken the deadlock by proposing that damage to habitats should become the subject of a general recommendation, rather than being written into any future directive based on the white paper. Legislation would be restricted to areas that are covered explicitly by EU legislation, sources said. Protection of habitats could possibly be incorporated into the directive at a later date after much more detailed evaluation work.

The suggestion was greeted with concern today by the European Environmental Bureau, a Brussels-based coalition of NGOs, which said it feared this amounted to a "watering down" of the whole white paper. It was welcomed, on the other hand, by the European employers' federation Unice, which was fiercely critical of earlier versions of the white paper (ENDS Daily 16 July 1998). "It is a very positive development," a spokesperson told ENDS Daily. "Risks associated with damage to the natural habitat are potentially vast, and would be uninsurable for companies."

Discussions within the Commission on burden of proof will resume tomorrow.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111; European Environmental Bureau, tel: +32 2 289 1090; Unice, tel: +32 2 237 6550.

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