New EU members to win stricter green rules

EU environmental laws to be strengthened in line with rules in Austria, Sweden, Finland

The EU's newest batch of member states looks set to keep a range of strict environmental rules they entered the Union with, following months of quiet negotiations coordinated by the European Commission. A side effect will be a minor, but in areas significant, strengthening of EU environmental laws.

When they joined the EU in 1995, Austria, Finland and Sweden all had some environmental rules stricter than those already in force under EU law. To preserve the single market, it was agreed that all divergent rules would be harmonised by the end of 1998. In the meantime, the three countries were given derogations allowing them to maintain their existing laws.

Discussions on all nine EU directives affected by the review process are now virtually complete, according to sources in the Commission and Council of Ministers. A draft communication by the Commission summarising the agreements made is being circulated internally, and should be adopted formally before the end of the month.

An EU limit on the sulphur content of gas-oil, used mainly in domestic heating, is to be reduced to 0.1% from 2008, following agreement by EU governments in June (ENDS Daily 18 June). This will bring EU law into line with existing limits in Austria and Finland.

Mercury in most general-purpose batteries is to be completely phased out in the EU from 2000, following an agreement reached between member states last month (ENDS Daily 22 October). This will match an existing Swedish ban on mercury in batteries, and will be stricter than a current Austrian limit.

The issue of limits on cadmium in fertilisers have proved more problematic. Existing Finnish and Swedish laws limit it to 50 and 100 milligrams per kilogram respectively; there is no general EU limit. Following the negotiations, an additional three-year derogation has been agreed for the new members, during which time the EU will conduct further scientific investigations into health and environmental risks.

Much of the talks have focused on controls on chemicals, involving divergences from EU law on dangerous substances, dangerous preparations, marketing and use of chemicals and pesticides.

The three countries had banned pentachlorophenol in chemical substances, a step which is taken now by the EU as well. Organostannic (organotin) compounds will be banned also. However, a Swedish ban on arsenic will not be matched, with the EU now hoping to achieve a voluntary agreement with industry instead.

After intensive discussions, Austria and Sweden will now retain existing chemical classification schemes, though Austria will have to alter some hazard warnings on products. Meanwhile, Sweden has won the right to maintain product statements warning of several substances' potential to be carcinogenic or mutagenic up to the year 2000. In the time remaining a risk assessment shall take place.

Finally it is now likely that EU will adopt an existing Swedish policy on the classification of chemical preparations - introducing a fourth classification level of moderately harmful in addition to three existing ones (very toxic, toxic, harmful).

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111; EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111.

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