22nd Mar 2018

Poland and Greece broke EU environment laws, rules court

  • Environmental activists demand clean air in Krakow, Poland, 2015 (Photo: Greenpeace Polska)

The Court of Justice of the EU has reprimanded two member states for not protecting the environment, in separate rulings on Thursday (22 February).

It said that Poland has broken EU law by failing to improve air quality, while Greece did not fully comply with a previous court ruling on urban waste water treatment.

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The court gave Greece a €5m fine, to be paid into the budget of the EU. It also threatened to continue handing out fines twice a year until Athens improves the situation.

The two cases are unrelated, but each highlight how environmental policies agreed in Brussels are not implemented in member states.

Poland: air quality

The case on Poland was about Warsaw's inability to keep levels of particulate matter (PM10) within EU limits.

The relevant EU rules on maximum levels of air pollution had been in place since 2010, but Poland's breach of those levels had been "persistent", according to a press statement from the court.

"In today's judgment, the court notes first of all that the fact of exceeding the limit values for PM10 concentrations in the ambient air is sufficient in itself to establish a failure to fulfil obligations," it said.

The court acknowledged that Poland had put in place plans to improve air quality, but said that the self-imposed deadlines for achieving better air quality – between 2020 and 2024 – were too far in the future.

Poland has said that it was difficult to combat air pollution in some areas because of "the socio-economic and financial challenge of the major technical investments to be carried out", the court said.

According to analysis from the European Environment Agency, air pollution is a particular problem in the winter season, because of emissions from domestic heating.

But the court said that those difficulties were "not exceptional" and could not be an excuse for not having a shorter deadline.

It is the second such ruling on the air quality directive. Last year, the court ruled similarly in a case against Bulgaria.

Poland now needs to improve the situation, just as Bulgaria had been ordered to do.

If the European Commission finds that they does not do enough to comply with the court ruling, it could refer them back to the court, which could then hand out a fine.

Greece: Urban waste water

That latter is exactly what the court did on Thursday with Greece.

As far back as 24 June 2004, the court said that Greece did not comply with EU rules on collecting urban waste water from the Thriasio Pedio area, west of Athens.

The requirements from the EU's urban waste water directive, on activities like sewage and rainwater drainage, should have been implemented as of 31 December 1998.

The commission had set a new 2010 deadline for Greece to comply, which it also missed.

Even now, the court said, the waste water of almost half of the population of the area is not yet processed according to the European rules.

The court said the delay of almost two decades was "an aggravating factor", although it acknowledged that there have been improvements.

It also said that archaeological findings make it difficult to make progress, and that Greece had "a reduced ability to pay as a result of the economic crisis which it experienced".

The court decided that Athens should pay a €5m fine. On top of that, it will determine every six months whether the situation has improved.

If it has not, it will give a €3.3m fine for every six-month period – or a lower fine if the situation has partially improved but the requirements are not completely met.

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