Compliance with EC environment rules remains "unsatisfactory"

Compliance with EC environmental legislation by the Member States remains unsatisfactory, according to the European Commission's annual report for 1991 on the implementation of Community laws.1 Public complaints alleging breaches of EC environment rules reached a record level in 1991, and only Denmark appears to be in a position to claim that its compliance record is satisfactory.

The report is the best overview available of the processes used by the Commission to secure compliance with EC law, and is a valuable guide to the innovations introduced by Brussels with the intention of solving apparent compliance problems in collaboration with Member States.

The report also highlights the difficulties of drawing up league tables of Member States' compliance records. This has become a popular pastime in the UK, with the Government claiming that its record is as spotless as can be, and environmental groups finding evidence to the contrary.

Apparent infringements of EC environmental law are detected by a combination of public complaints to Brussels, the Commission's own inquiries, and Member States' implementation reports.

The latter remain a poor source of information. As the Commission points out, "it is the exception, rather than the rule, for the Commission to receive the reports provided for in many Directives."

Public complaints alleging infringements of EC environmental legislation were more numerous than in any other area of EC policy in 1991. A total of 353 complaints in the areas of environmental and consumer protection - the vast majority in the former - were received in 1991. The next highest figure, 346, was in internal market and industrial affairs.

In both 1989 and 1990, more complaints were submitted to Brussels from the UK than any other Member State, reaching a record for any country of 192 in 1989. In 1991 the figure dropped to 55, putting the UK behind Germany and Spain. However, this appears not to be a real reduction because the Commission changed the way it handled complaints data during 1991, particularly when multiple complaints on the same topic came in via petitions.

A total of 113 apparent infringements of environmental laws were detected by the Commission itself during 1991. This was also the highest figure for any area of EC policy in any year.

Despite the increase in apparent breaches of EC rules, enforcement action initiated by the Commission declined in 1991.

The first stage in the enforcement procedure is a letter of formal notice. In 1991, 136 were issued in the area of environmental and consumer protection - down from 168 in 1990.

The second stage is a reasoned opinion. In environmental and consumer protection, 54 of these were issued in 1991 - up from 39 in 1990, but below the peak of 71 in 1988.

If a Member State still fails to satisfy that it is in compliance with EC law, it can then be taken to the European Court of Justice. Eight such cases were initiated by the Commission in 1991 in the fields of environmental and consumer protection, down from 14 in 1990 and 21 in 1989.

Assessing the compliance record of different Member States is not straightforward because the likelihood that infringements will be detected remains something of a lottery, resting largely as it does on public complaints and Member States' responsiveness to the Commission's requests for information. Compliance is also made up of several elements, including the formal translation of EC into national laws, their application in practice, and the fulfilment by Member States of their duties to report to Brussels on both these aspects.

Member States are not only slow to report, but regularly fail to transpose Directives fully into national laws. The league table , showing performance in notifying Brussels of their implementing laws for some 90 mainstream environmental Directives, should be read with these reservations in mind.

The next table shows the number of alleged infringements of EC environmental legislation referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) between 1987-91. The number of judgements does not tally with the number of cases either because the ECJ had yet to deliver its opinion by the end of 1991, or because its judgement related to a case brought before 1987.

Another aspect of the compliance record is whether Member States rectify breaches of Community law once the ECJ has ruled against them. The table overleaf shows that several Member States had yet to comply with ECJ judgements delivered as long ago as 1986 by the end of 1991. Denmark, Eire, Greece, Portugal and the UK have either had no judgements made against them or are now in compliance.

A conclusion which cannot be drawn from these figures is that the UK's compliance record is, as Environment Ministers have sometimes claimed, second to none. It is equally clear that its record on these yardsticks is superior to that of several Member States.

If any country holds top position then it is Denmark. According to the Commission, "in general terms Denmark goes seriously about the business of transposing Community environment Directives," and "individual violations of Community environmental law are so few and far between that their media impact is much greater than it would be in other Member States."

For the second year running, the report contains a separate chapter on the environment but not on any other area of EC policy. This gives a detailed account of compliance by country and the various sectors of environmental policy.

The largest number of complaints and infringements in 1991 concerned the 1985 Directive on environmental assessment, particularly in respect of major transport projects. Next in line were water, then waste, then air. Few problems were reported in the implementation of environmental Directives applicable to marketable products, so that chemicals and noise came low in the league table.

The report reveals that the Commission has initiated infringement proceedings against every Member State for failing to introduce pollution reduction programmes required by the 1976 Directive on dangerous substances in water. These programmes were to have applied to all the substances which are candidates for the "black list" - currently numbering 99 - until EC discharge limits and water quality standards have been set for them on a case-by-case basis.

As far as the UK is concerned, the report notes that several Directives have not been fully translated into UK law. These include the Directives on environmental assessment, air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide, drinking water, bird conservation and the 1984 framework Directive on industrial air pollution. And Directives which are not applied properly in practice include those on bathing and drinking water, bird conservation, and groundwater protection.

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