META sat down with Jeremy Wates, EEB Secretary General to talk environmental rights. We discussed the Aarhus Convention and how it’s applied at national and EU level.
What environmental rights do NGOs and citizens have?
There are three environmental rights: access to information, public participation and access to justice. The Aarhus Convention guarantees these three rights on environmental matters for the public and for environmental groups, in the EU and its member states.
So, what exactly is the Aarhus convention?
It’s an international treaty that was adopted 20 years ago. Put simply, it’s aim is to empower the public to take part in decision making in environmental matters. In order to have effective participation, the public needs to be well informed and have access to justice.
And how is it applied in the EU?
The convention is applied at two levels, the national and EU level. At the EU level, directives exist on access to information and public participation, but not on access to justice. This is an issue as a directive would be a way to make sure that the member states are meeting the standards of the convention.
Are there any problems with how the EU applies the convention?
Yes. There are clear issues at EU level, especially regarding access to justice. Environmental groups and citizens have very limited access to the European Court of Justice, because they need to prove the issue directly concerns them as an individual. This limitation doesn’t exist in the convention, which in fact prohibits this kind of limitation. After this limitation was reported, the EU committed to explore how it could come into line with the requirements of the convention.
What should we expect for the future?
At the EU level, we would like the new Commission to make amending the Aarhus regulation one of its first priorities. We hope that all three institutions will take progressive positions in the process, and we will certainly push for that. That’s the most important step. The Commission should also come forward with a proposal for a directive on access to justice so that the level of access to justice can be raised in all member states.