EU acts against Belgian "tacit authorisations"

Belgium contravening five directives, Spain slow to close dirty incinerators, Commission alleges

The European Commission is to take Belgium to the European Court of Justice for failure to comply with five EU directives, it was announced today. The single case is one of six in the latest batch to be announced after acting EU commissioners held a quarterly infringements meeting last week.

Belgium faces a further court application regarding waste incineration, as do Italy and Spain, which also faces a trip to the court over failure to comply with the habitats directive. The same directive is causing problems for several countries, the latest being Sweden, which has been sent a reasoned opinion - the final warning issued before the Commission can apply to the court for a judgement.

All the cases have been brought under article 226 (formerly 169) of the EC treaty and equate to a "first offence" under EU law. The case against Belgium concerns the issue of "tacit authorisations" in which companies applying for permission to undertake a polluting activity receive an authorisation by default if the competent national body fails to inform them otherwise.

The Commission sent Belgium a reasoned opinion late last year (ENDS Daily 17 December) pointing out that legislation in the regions of Wallonia and Flanders gave the possibility of authorisations without any "express act" by the administration. Since then Wallonia has changed its law, but Flanders "continues to defend authorisation by default," which, the Commission argues, puts it in breach of directives on dangerous substances, groundwater, industrial plants, environmental impact assessment and the framework waste directive.

A Commission official told ENDS Daily today that the case was being brought both "as a matter of principle" and to clamp down on a "dangerous precedent," as Belgium was the only country known to issue tacit authorisations. Although he acknowledged that very few authorisations had so far been given in this way, he said the Commission doubted Belgium's claim that regulations outside the directive were sufficient to prevent exceedance of pollution standards.

Italy and Belgium both face court appearances for failure to implement the 1989 waste incineration directive. The Commission alleges Belgium's implementing law fails to ensure waste incineration plants are closed down promptly when flue gas cleaning equipment fails, while Italy has simply failed to inform the Commission whether it has transposed the directive into national law.

Spain is accused of non-compliance with the same directive because three incinerators in the Canary Islands do not conform with standards laid down by the directive. The Commission is unhappy that the plants are still operating after the December 1996 compliance deadline, and that the Spanish authorities had originally promised to close them by 2000 but were now planning to delay closure even longer.

The Canaries, which have the highest level of endemic biodiversity in Europe, are also the subject Spain's infringement of the habitats directive. Although a large number of sites in this "Macaronesian" biogeographical area have been earmarked for special protection , the Commission believes the coverage of "certain habitat types and species" to be insufficient.

The same criticism is directed towards Sweden, although the Commission notes its pleasure at the "steady progress" being made in general in the implementation of the habitats directive. Neither country is among the five reported yesterday to be in danger of losing entitlements to future EU structural funds for their failure to implement the directive (ENDS Daily 8 July).

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111. References: Press notices dated 9/7/99 for all mentioned cases can be found on Rapid.

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