Commission proposals to ease work of European Environment Agency

Only minor changes in the tasks of the European Environment Agency (EEA) have been proposed by the European Commission in the first formal review of the Agency's mandate. But it has proposed legal amendments to help the Agency surmount difficulties in getting its network of eight topic centres up and running and in obtaining environmental information from Member States.

The EEA was set up in late 1993, but only began substantive work during 1995. It now has a staff of 60 and an annual budget of around £12 million.

The Agency's main functions are to provide objective and comparable information on the state of the environment to inform policy-making, and to monitor the impacts of environmental policy. Much of its effort has been devoted to establishing a network, EIONET, to gather information from the Member States, together with topic centres to co-ordinate data gathering and assessment (ENDS Report 240, pp 20-23 ). The Agency's most visible output to date was the Dobris Assessment, a panoramic report on the state of Europe's environment published in 1995 (ENDS Report 248, p 40 ).

Under the 1990 Regulation which established the Agency, Environment Ministers were due to consider allocating further tasks to it in 1995. The review was postponed until 1997 because of delays in getting the Agency up and running. Four particular additions to its remit were to be considered: assisting with the implementation of EC legislation, eco-labelling, promotion of cleaner technologies, and drafting of criteria for environmental impact assessment.

In a report submitted to the Council, the Commission says that the Agency has made "good progress" overall. However, it also points out that the EEA has had difficulties in persuading national networks to deliver information. And of the eight planned topic centres, only those on air quality and atmospheric emissions have made a real impact. The centres on inland waters, soil quality, nature conservation, the marine and coastal environment and land cover are only beginning to produce useful data, while a further centre on waste management will not be set up until later this year. Work on chemicals is still at a preliminary stage.

The Commission therefore concludes that it would not be appropriate to add major new tasks to the Agency's remit. The modest extensions proposed are to assist the Commission in monitoring Member States' compliance with EC legislation, developing environmental impact assessment techniques, and disseminating information on "environmental research which has a policy relevance". Another would see the Agency establish a European reference centre for environmental information.

The Agency's next report on the state of Europe's environment is due in 1998. However, the Commission has proposed that thereafter such reports should be published every five years instead of three, supplemented by annual "indicator" reports.

Other proposed amendments to the 1990 Regulation include an explicit duty on Member States to co-operate with the Agency in collecting, processing and analysing environmental information at national level. Designation of topic centres has in part been delayed by the requirement for unanimous agreement by the Agency's board, and the Commission has proposed that in future such decisions should be taken by a two-thirds majority.

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