EU laws must ensure that environmental crime does not pay

As the European Commission gears up to review the Environmental Crime Directive, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) calls for better protection of people and nature through criminal law, writes Frederik Hafen.

On the 15th of December, the European Commission is expected to publish a proposal to improve environmental protection through criminal law by reviewing the current Environmental Crime Directive, which sets minimum standards for the enforcement of European environmental law at national level.

While the EU has very limited competences when it comes to national criminal law, it does play an important role in harmonising the national rules on what constitutes a crime and how to punish it. Without EU wide minimum guidelines, environmental crime goes unpunished and organised crime has an easy way of shopping around for the legal systems that carry the lowest risks of being caught or punished. Implementing EU environmental policy and delivering on political promises goes hand in hand with a strong liability regime and enforcement that ensures that environmental crime doesn’t pay.

Interpol and Eurojust have both recorded a major increase in global and European environmental crime. The current Environmental Crime Directive is simply no match for today’s crooks.  

Crimes such as wildlife trade, waste dumping, illegal hunting and fishing, unlawful logging and mining, and unauthorised release of emissions are some of the most profitable crimes worldwide. Combine that with organised criminal organisations and a lack of strong harmonised rules and you create a European hotbed for any criminal trying to turn a profit.

As detailed by the EEB’s Crime and punishment report, and by the Commission’s own evaluation, the current text of the Environmental Crime Directive does little to prevent and dissuade many of the most lucrative environmental offences in the EU, nor does it help enforcement bodies to detect them. The evaluations of the current directive have shown that its definitions are too limited, imprecise, and impractical. In short, it’s too short.

Francesca Carlsson, Senior Legal Officer of the EEB, said:

“The current Environmental Crime Directive has failed to set minimum criminalisation standards that prevent environmental crime from occurring in the EU. It’s time to establish unambiguous legal definitions, clear procedures for judicial cooperation to help enforcement, and stricter rules on individual and company liability, as well as truly dissuasive sanctions.” 

The current text limits criminal behaviour to acts that go against legislations specifically listed in its annex. 

On the upcoming revision of the Directive, Carlsson said:

“The EU needs to send a clear signal that harming the environment does not pay and should be criminally sanctioned effectively in all Member States. The proposal tomorrow must address the shortcomings of the current Environmental Crime Directive.

Ahead of the publication of the Commission’s proposal, the EEB called on Commissioner Jourová and her team to come forward with an ambitious proposal that addresses the shortcomings of the current Environmental Crime Directive.

Notably, campaigners demand that the Commission establishes a strong liability regime and enforcement that ensures that environmental crime does not pay, help punish environmental crime by strengthening EU wide minimum guidelines on sanctions, strengthen criminal liability of companies, broaden the scope of the Directive and recognize an independent definition of environmental crime, recognise the crime of ‘ecocide’ as defined by an independent expert panel for the use at the International Criminal Court, cover diffuse pollution and illegal extraction of groundwater, and enable European wide collection of crime statistics.