Infringements of EU environment law up 50%

Increase in suspected infringements of EU law by states reverses four-year downward trend

The number of suspected infringements of EU environmental law by member states increased by over a half in 1997, the latest figures from the European Commission show.

In its report on the application of EU law in 1997, the Commission - which polices the implementation of community legislation - recorded 315 suspected infringements, compared with only 207 in 1996. This reverses a four-year downward trend in suspected infringements.

Across the range of sectors covered by EU law there was an average increase in infringement procedures on 23% and the Commission says this can be partly explained by a recent simplification of procedures which has speeded up the legal process.

The Commission also puts the increase down to a rise in the number of complaints from the public - up 17% on 1996. Complaints from individuals, businesses and pressure groups are often the catalyst for legal action from the Commission.

But the report admits that national governments' record in implementing EU environment law is particularly poor, and that the Commission had to start legal proceedings against every country at least once during 1997. "As in every previous annual report ...the Commission must report that the member states are finding it difficult to comply with deadlines for the transposal of Community directives on the environment," reads the report.

Belgium, once again, proved the worst at transposing EU directives into national law, achieving only 87% in 1997. All other countries had transposed at least 95%. Spain accounted for the largest number of suspected infringements - 63 during 1997, while Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden each had fewer than ten.

The 1997 report is also notable because it was the first year that the Commission was able to request the Court of Justice to impose daily fines on national governments for failing to comply with previous court judgements. It requested fines in five cases, though none has resulted in penalties actually being applied by the court. This power, granted by the Maastricht treaty, has "proved its effectiveness" says the Commission, as four out the five cases were settled during 1997.

The environmental impact assessment directive remains one of the biggest causes for complaints to the Commission for suspected non-compliance. Germany, Ireland and Portugal all face court action for incorrect transposal of the directive, and other legal action is pending against Italy, Spain and Greece. There were fewer proceedings in the air sector last year, but water law remains a major issue accounting for one quarter of all environmental law infringement cases.

The Commission will produce a more detailed report on the implementation of EU environment law in September when it will publish its first annual report specifically on that subject.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111.

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