© European Union, 2018

We’ll see you in court: European Commission tells nine member states

After hosting a ‘toxic bloc’ summit of environment ministers European Commissioner Karmenu Vella has declared: “we can delay no more” when it comes to tackling Europe’s air pollution crisis.

After their ministers failed to demonstrate any significant new measures, the European Commission is now expected to take nine national governments to court for their failure to improve the quality of air in their cities.

The environment ministers from the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom – which all still burn coal to generate electricity – were summoned to Brussels this week but failed to impress the Commission with their plans to tackle deadly pollution.

EU air quality limits are currently breached in 130 cities in 23 EU countries, but this week’s meeting was reserved for those who had already received final warnings and were threatened with further legal action.

If countries fail to comply with EU law the European Commission has the power to take them to court to force them to act. A court ruling could result in fines or other sanctions.

After the meeting, Margherita Tolotto, the EEB’s Policy Officer for Air and Noise said:

“With no substantial measures announced by ministers today, it is impossible to justify any further delay in sending cases against these governments to court and we expect to see the Commission doing so in the coming days.”

Commissioner Vella earlier struck a similar tone telling a press conference that governments had responsibilities and that their failure to meet those responsibilities had consequences. He said:

“The deadlines for meeting the legal obligations have long lapsed… we can delay no more.”

While most countries sent leading government figures to meeting, including German and French environment ministers Barbara Hendricks and Nicolas Hulot, the UK’s Michael Gove appeared to dodge the summons, sending junior minister Therese Coffey in his place.

In a meeting that last just over two hours none of those present were able to persuade Commissioner Vella that they had “substantial enough” proposals to cut air pollution. Environmental groups concluded that given the lack of new measures announced at the meeting, further legal action is now inevitable.

The EU has already sent cases against Bulgaria and Poland to court. Bulgaria was the first country to be ordered to take action to improve its air quality in a landmark ruling in April last year. A ruling against the Polish government is expected on 22 February 2018.

With the Commission taking a strong position on the need to protect EU citizens from their own governments’ inaction on air pollution, it is likely other states will face legal action in the near future.

The ongoing breaches concern concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and tiny particles of harmful dust known as PM. European Environment Agency data shows 19 EU countries were breaching the annual limit value for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and seven countries were breaching the annual limit for fine particles in 2015 – the last year for which data is available.


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While the Commission is right to call ‘toxic bloc’ summit, it would be wrong to step back from enforcing the law, META Editorial by Margherita Tolotto, EEB Air and Noise Policy Officer.