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21st Apr 2019

EU gives countries a week to draw up new clean air plans

  • EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella (r) welcoming French environment minister Nicholas Hulot (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission has given nine national governments until Monday (5 February) to come with new plans that will bring air quality in their countries in line with EU standards.

EU environment commissioner Karmenu Vella said that the lethal consequences of air pollution has been known "for decades", and EU rules to combat it have existed almost as long.

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"And yet, still today, in 2018, 400 000 people are still dying prematurely every year because of a massive, widespread failure to address the problem," said Vella on Tuesday (30 January).

He spoke to press after meeting with environment ministers – or their deputies – from the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.

Vella said that at the ministerial meeting some new commitments were given, although he did not specify what they were.

"All those commitments wil be evaluated by my services," he said.

"We have also asked the member states that if they have any new measures that they can put on the table, that they have to come with these new measures latest by Monday."

A commission spokesman told EUobserver however that Monday was not formal legal deadline.

Vella added "there were some positive suggestions but I have to say that at first sight these were not substantial enough to change the bigger picture".

Indeed, it seems unlikely that national governments, which have been aware of the problem for years, would suddenly agree on a new plan in the coming six days.

EU states were required to respect EU-level air quality standards for particulate matter in 2005, and nitrogen dioxide in 2010.

Aside from meeting politicians and making statements, the commission has mainly one tool to make member states comply with the EU air quality standards: the infringement procedure.

The nine countries present on Tuesday are at the receiving end of that procedure, which could end up at the Court of Justice of the EU.

Tuesday's meeting was a political one, outside of the infringement procedure. But Vella stressed that the commission would still go to court if sufficient new measures are not taken.

"There are no new deadlines. We are not delaying, we are not postponing the process. There is a legal process, which is ongoing," he said.

Vella said he reminded ministers that they could be taken to court, but acknowledged that some think that the commission has already waited too long before dragging states to court.

Final, final warning

Crucially, the decision to take the final step is not automatic, and needs to be approved by the college of EU commissioners – one from each country.

Vella noted that he would discuss the issue with the college on Wednesday, and had the backing of EU commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

Although the start of the infringement procedure has deadlines for member states by which to reply to commission letters, there is no required time limit within which the commission should go from final warning to court.

The commission sent final warnings – so-called 'reasoned opinions' – to Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom on 15 February 2017, almost a year ago.

The Czech Republic already received such a reasoned opinion on 26 March 2015, but almost three years later is still not taken to court.

If the commission does take a country to court, and the court decides that a country has breached EU law, it may receive a fine.

Brexit

Vella said, when asked about it, that the unique situation of the UK – which is expected to leave the EU in 423 days – was not discussed.

"This was not about Brexit, this was not about the UK," he said.

"We were not addressing the UK specifically, but we were addressing all the ministers that were present there."

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