Ministers angered by new EU eco-crime plan

Most governments accuse Commission of interfering by launching last minute rival proposal

EU justice ministers are furious with the European Commission over its proposal last week of a new directive on environmental crimes. The ministers were due to reach a common position on Thursday on an alternative plan put forward by Denmark. The Commission's last minute move has forced postponement of the deal and now presents a serious rival to it.

Under discussion for well over a year, Denmark's proposal is for EU states to agree a "framework decision" on eco-crime under the little-used "third pillar" of the bloc's treaty. This allows member states to make EU legislative proposals directly in certain well-defined fields, by-passing the treaty's "first pillar", under which the Commission has the sole right to propose new laws.

After already receiving approval in principle from EU ministers last October (ENDS Daily 5 October 2000), the proposal was discussed again on Thursday, with ministers due to reach a common position.

On Tuesday, however, the Commission released its own, first-pillar eco-crime proposal (ENDS Daily 13 March). As a result, ministers had to postpone agreement because governments are required under the EU treaty to give consideration to Commission proposals aimed at achieving the same objectives as any plan they are discussing.

The two proposals are very similar in aims and approach. Both would create a list of environmental crimes to be made subject to criminal rather than administrative sanction with the aim of harmonising definitions of environmental crimes and increasing the severity of penalties for serious environmental crimes around the EU. One difference is that the Commission proposal has a slightly narrower scope because it covers only breaches of EU environmental laws.

Speaking after the meeting, EU justice commissioner Antonio Vitorino insisted the two measures were "complementary" and that adopting both was "the only way to guarantee both proposals are in line with the EU treaty."

Ministers disagree, however. According to one source, only the Netherlands and Belgium were in favour of the Commission's proposal. The rest are dead against. "We do not believe that the [EU] can oblige member states to impose penal sanctions [under the first pillar]," one EU diplomat said.

Significantly, however, the council's own legal service has backed the Commission's view, indicating that any escalation of the row to the European Court may go in its favour.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6211, and council conclusions.

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