Austria to put bathing water law on EU agenda

Four-year old proposal finally to be examined by ministers, pressure for withdrawal remains

Austria is to reopen discussions on the moribund EU draft directive on bathing water quality when it assumes the EU presidency in January next year, it has emerged. According to an Austrian government source, the European Commission has asked Austria to "create a forum" in which member states can give opinions on the draft. Proposed in 1994, the directive is intended to revise and strengthen the existing 1976 bathing water directive but has been virtually ignored by member states for the last four years.

Austria has now agreed to put the dossier on the agenda of the EU Council of Ministers environment working group - a committee of diplomats in Brussels which negotiates draft legislation at a sub-ministerial level.

The Commission's plan to revise the directive has been unpopular with member states, mainly because it includes new stricter monitoring standards which would be more costly to comply with. Whereas the 1976 directive requires monitoring of total and faecal coliforms, under the new proposal, levels of faecal streptococci and the human gut bacterium E. coli would have to be measured specifically. The revision would also put in place for the first time an EU-wide standard for communicating bathing water standards to the public.

Some EU member states are reported to be certain to call for the proposal to be dropped altogether when discussions start under the Austrian presidency. Speaking to the European Parliament's environment committee yesterday, UK environment minister Michael Meacher called on the Commission to withdraw the plan and start again.

Speaking today, EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard hinted that the Commission was prepared to alter the directive to break the four-year impasse. She deplored member states' failure to make any progress on the draft law, but offered to be "creative and look at new ways of doing things" to deal with problem issues for EU countries.

She also confirmed that the Commission had discussed the subject with Austria. "We have been working with the Austrians and on the basis of that discussion hopefully we can move out of the log jam."

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111; Austrian environment ministry, tel: +43 1 515 22 50 50.

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