At the EU environment ministers' quarterly meeting in Brussels today, a majority were opposed to Germany's plan because they considered the dossier closed. But instead of forcing a vote, ministers agreed to a delay. Nevertheless, Germany appears to have little room to re-open substantive discussions over the measure. Official Council conclusions say a formal decision must be reached at the next Environment Council meeting in June, and that this must be "in conformity with the consensus" position reached in December.
The official reason given for this delay is so the text can be finalised "from a legal-linguistic point of view" and to "explain and to clarify to those concerned by the directive the options available under its terms for a balanced transposition".
This diplomatic wording effectively avoids the unseemly situation of ministers turning down a request from the EU presidency point blank. However, it also ties Germany into accepting the text already agreed after months of negotiations. It remains to be seen whether Germany will push for changes to the text claiming they are "in conformity" with December's consensus.
Germany's future position on the matter was thrown into greater doubt by the surprise resignation this afternoon of the country's finance minister Oskar Lafontaine. German environment minister Jürgen Trittin, who was chairing the meeting in Brussels, left the meeting immediately the news broke.
Although there is no direct link with the Lafontaine resignation, Mr Trittin's position is looking less secure than a few days ago. If the resignation sparks a cabinet reshuffle it is not sure that his minority Green party will hold on to the environment ministry at a time when the head of government is pushing for a more pro-industry stance on environment matters.
What is clear is that Germany's presidency of the EU has been marred by events at today's meeting. Environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard told journalists that this was not the way she thought a presidency should behave and said she hoped Germany had not set a precedent.
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111.
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