The European Commission's action plan, aimed at improving the poor and uneven implementation of EU environmental law and governance across the EU, shows a serious lack of ambition and resources as it proposes measures that are too weak to adequately and uniformly sanction non-compliance by Member States, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has said in a recent opinion.
Although welcoming the Commission's nine-point action plan on advancing environmental compliance and governance in the EU, presented in the Commission's Communication, the EESC – the EU body representing organised civil society in Europe – nevertheless expressed strong reservations.
"This is only a tiny fraction of what is needed to ensure that environmental legislation is implemented," the author of the opinion Arnaud Schwartz said. "We think that non-compliance with EU law needs to be addressed at an appropriately high level and in a timely manner, which is not proposed in the current communication."
According to an EC study, the cost of non-compliance with EU environmental law amounts to EUR 50 billion every year. It also contributes to unfair competition and causes economic harm. As well as the economic gains, more effective application of this legislation would have many other benefits including for public health and protection of the long-term resources needed by society.
One of the EESC's main objections to the plan is that it only talks about capacity building and support at the level of Member States, failing to include measures that would provide for monitoring and enforcement at EU level. Without such measures, this action plan is "too soft" and "unlikely to lead to significant improvements in environmental compliance", the EESC argued.
Another criticism levelled by the EESC at the Commission is that it suggested measures solely to counter non-compliance caused by confusion, poor understanding or lack of capacity, without addressing other important reasons such as the lack of political will.
In the EESC's view, the Commission – as the "guardian of the treaty" – must ensure that environmental rules are enforced and has the right to instigate enforcement proceedings as it has a key role in protecting this common EU interest, especially in the light of the current serious level of environmental degradation across the EU.
As the effects of environmental harm regularly spill over borders, consistent and strict application of environmental law in all Member States, which includes equal sanctioning of non-compliance, is of utmost importance. While Member States have the primary responsibility for the correct application of EU law, the Commission has a key role in providing access to justice in cross-border conflicts.
The EESC also regretted that the plan did not deal with effective access to justice in the environmental domain or the difficulties of bringing a case before national courts and the often prohibitively high costs involved. It is such costs that often prevent civil society organisations and citizens from holding governments and large businesses accountable through the national courts, undermining their role as public watchdogs.
The Committee is also seriously concerned about a lack of political will within the Commission to carry forward complaints and inspections of national implementation of EU law.
The EESC called on the Member States and the Commission to mobilise substantial funding for additional staff in order to monitor compliance with environmental laws.
"The failure to ensure compliance with the legislation in place is a missed opportunity for the EU to live up to its values and to make an actual difference," the EESC warned in its opinion.
The EESC's reservations are also underpinned by a new report from the European Court of Auditors on air pollution. EU citizens’ health is still not sufficiently protected and EU action to protect human health from air pollution has not delivered the expected impact, the European Court of Auditors warned in the report.
Commenting after the adoption of the EESC opinion, Mr Schwartz maintained that “Europe needs to act in concert. Our environment is our livelihood that we have to preserve for future generations. Europe should become a global pioneer in the effective protection of the environment”.