Greece on the brink of EU fines over waste law

European Court of Justice advisor gives ground-breaking support to request for penalties

Greece could become the first country to be fined by the EU for failing to comply with a Community environmental law following a landmark legal opinion delivered in Luxembourg today. If the full court backs advocate general Ruiz-Jarabo Colomer's opinion it will mark a "defining moment" not just for environmental law but for the EU as a legal entity in general, according to Brussels sources.

The opinion marks the closest point to an actual court judgement that any EU legal case involving a penalty request has ever reached. It also represents the first legal test of European Commission operational rules on when to request fines and how large they should be.

The case concerns failure by Greece to fully comply with two EU directives on waste (75/442 and 78/319) even after the Commission successfully won a European Court of Justice judgement against it in 1992. When the Commission restarted legal proceedings in 1997 it requested that the court impose fines of Ecu24,600 per day if Greece was condemned a second time (ENDS Daily 27 June 1997).

The Commission's ability to request fines in "repeat" legal cases was introduced in the 1992 Maastricht treaty. The EU executive has used this power around 30 times, according to EU sources, overwhelmingly in actions concerning environmental laws. However, virtually all of these cases have been resolved either before reaching the European Court or soon after. This has led EU legal officials to describe the procedure as a "sword of Damocles" due to its effectiveness in getting member states to comply speedily with EU environmental laws (ENDS Daily 27 June 1997).

In his legal opinion, Mr Colomer agrees with the Commission that Greece has failed to comply with the 1992 court judgement and finds that the Commission's recommendation for daily fines was "appropriate inasmuch as there has been no manifest error of assessment or failure to observe the principles of proportionality and equal treatment".

After weighing up the seriousness of the offences, however, the advocate general recommends to the court daily fines of euros 15,375 per day, effective from the day of the judgement. This is nearly 40% lower than requested by the Commission, but is still substantial. If Greece took one year to fully comply with the two EU waste laws then the total fine would amount to over euros 5.6m.

Moreover, the Commission has recommended far higher fines in some other cases, now withdrawn. They include a request for Ecu185,850 per day against Italy (ENDS Daily 11 December 1998), and one of Ecu264,000 per day against Germany (ENDS Daily 27 June 1997).

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031. References: The full text of the opinion in case C-387/97 is posted on the court's web site under "recent case law".

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