While the Commission is right to call ‘toxic bloc’ summit, it would be wrong to step back from enforcing the law

This week’s summit of EU environment ministers is a welcome opportunity to move air pollution to the top of the political agenda.

Announcing the summit in a blog post last week, Commissioner Vella said that a Europe that cares “cannot sit by as 400,000 Europeans die from poor air quality each year”.

Vella’s blog post was notable for its emotive language. He wrote of how futile it was to tell the parent of a child suffering from chronic bronchitis, or the daughter of a 70-year-old woman with lung disease, that the air would be better in ten years time.

Unfortunately, for people all over Europe, this is exactly what the EU and national governments have been doing for decades.

The environment ministers of the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom have a lot to answer for. Air quality standards for fine particles and nitrogen dioxide have been being breached by these countries for between 8 and 13 years. The time for excuses is over.

And the problem is much wider than just these nine countries. EU air pollution rules are being broken in more than 130 cities in 23 of the 28 EU Member States.

While the causes and types of air pollution, and the challenges faced by those 130 cities are varied and complex, the extent of these breaches is shocking.

Everyone in Europe has the same right to clean and healthy air. Member States signed off on laws to protect us from air pollution, and it is the Commission’s responsibility to enforce them.

The Commission’s inaction has created a vicious cycle whereby national governments no longer fear being sanctioned for breaking the law. All the while, children across Europe breathe poisonous air.

In his blog post Commissioner Vella wrote: “…it is the improvements, not the process, that interests Europeans”

He is of course correct.

Parents will worry about whether the air their children breathe is harming them, not whether their government has been taken the ECJ for breaching limits set in the Ambient Air Quality Directive.

But equally, Europeans are not stupid.

Their governments have been promising to improve their air for decades and yet are still failing to deliver.

Meanwhile, EEB members and engaged citizens all over Europe have used domestic courts to defend their right to clean air. Judges have consistently looked at the (European) law, considered our arguments, and ruled in our favour. These judgments have forced action across the continent. People everywhere know, when all else fails, legal action works.

Yet citizen-led action is clearly not enough. From Venice to Vilnius and Walsall to Warsaw, pollution doesn’t discriminate. The Commission must step in to see that laws are properly implemented all over Europe – regardless of whether or not local groups have the resources and opportunity to fight for their rights in the courts.

This is why it is so important that this week’s summit is more than another talking shop. The nine invited governments have already been given final warnings. Cases against these countries are ready to be sent to the European Court of Justice, failure to do so by the Commission would send a worrying signal to citizens and other member states.

Accepting excuses for inaction now would reveal not just a Europe that doesn’t care about citizens’ health, but a Europe that doesn’t care about its own laws either.

Put simply, Europeans are interested in clean air, not hot air. While this summit could certainly provide the latter, only further infringement proceedings will guarantee the former.