Ministers fail to agree on Environment Agency, eco-auditing

Agreements on a Regulation on the transfrontier shipment of waste and on the EC's negotiating stance in November's global discussions on ozone-depleting chemicals were the two main successes of the Environment Council on 20 October. But a bid to settle the prolonged dispute about a home for the European Environment Agency ended in failure, while German objections are proving central to delaying agreement on a draft Regulation on eco-auditing.

The meeting in Luxembourg on 20 October was the first of two formal Environment Councils to be held under the UK Presidency. The second will be in December.

The main success of the meeting was an agreement on the Regulation on transfrontier shipment of waste. Details are given in the article below. Ministers also finalised the EC's negotiating position for the review of the global Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances which takes place in Copenhagen in the second half of November (see pp 36-37 ).

Attempts by British Environment Secretary Michael Howard, who presided over the meeting, to break the deadlock over the location of the European Environment Agency proved unsuccessful.

A Regulation to establish the Agency, whose main tasks will be to collect information on the state of the environment and the pressures acting upon it, was adopted in May 1990. But the Agency has yet to come into being because its location is caught up in a wider dispute about a permanent site for the European Parliament and sites for other EC institutions, such as the European Central Bank and the European Trade Marks Office.

France has been widely blamed for using the Agency's location as a hostage in its attempts to keep the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

In the run-up to the Environment Council, Mr Howard attempted to break the log-jam by proposing that Ministers should agree a site, and then recommend it to the European Summit in Edinburgh in December. But several Member States were unwilling to separate this issue from the overall package of institutions.

Mr Howard's next move was to propose on 20 October that Ministers should agree unanimously on a resolution urging the Edinburgh Summit to decide on the Agency's location. But this, too, was thwarted by the Italian Environment Minister and former Environment Commissioner Carlo Ripa di Meana, who is understood to have argued that Ministers were failing in their responsibilities by not agreeing a site themselves - and put in a bid for Italy to host the Agency.

The only issue on which agreement could be obtained was that, if no decision is taken at the Edinburgh Summit, Environment Ministers should look at the issue again at their next meeting immediately afterwards.

The draft Regulation on eco-auditing, issued by the Commission this spring, was discussed briefly by Ministers. The Regulation would enable companies to participate voluntarily in the eco-auditing scheme by establishing environmental management systems, carrying out periodic audits, and publishing externally verified environmental statements (ENDS Report 206, pp 18-20 ).

The main obstacle to agreement appears to be a German objection to the proposal that companies participating in the scheme should be able to use a Community "eco-logo" in corporate advertisements, brochures and the like. Under the draft rules, when doing so they would have to state which of their sites were participating in the scheme, and could not use the logo for sites in breach of EC or national environmental laws.

These conditions have not satisfied Germany's Economics Ministry. In a leaked letter, it objects to the idea that a company using the eco-logo by virtue of having one site in compliance with the Regulation would stand to benefit from having this seal of approval when it might well have other sites which would not even be operating in conformity with German environmental laws. This, the letter suggests, would be a distortion of competition - or to put it another and less charitable way, the Ministry wants German environmental standards to apply throughout the Community, if possible at a stroke.

If nothing else, the leaked letter has sparked a debate about the terms under which a company should be barred from using the logo in connection with a particular site which is otherwise in compliance with the Regulation.

If this is to be when the site fails to comply with national and EC laws, would this mean, for example, that a single short-term breach of an authorisation which tarnished an otherwise spotless record would disqualify it from using the logo? This might be regarded as a utopian approach, so would a conviction for an environmental offence do instead? Almost certainly not, because Member States are not always impressed by their Community partners' approaches to enforcement.

This apparently minor issue is proving extremely difficult to resolve, but there is modest optimism that a solution can be found in time for the Regulation to be agreed in December. The European Parliament's opinion is still awaited.

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