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29th Feb 2024

Green crime-fighting boss urgently required, key MEP says

  • Illegal healthcare waste, seized as part of an operation carried out by Spanish civil guard (Photo: Europol)
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With increased cases of wildlife trafficking, waste dumping, and illegal logging being recorded across EU countries, calls for tougher action against environmental criminal networks are on the rise.

The European Parliament approved last week a non-binding resolution on illegal logging, calling to extend the EU public prosecutor's mandate to also cover environmental crime.

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  • Romanian liberal MEP Vlad Gheorghe has been leading efforts in the European parliament to have an EU green prosecutor (Photo: Vlad Gheorghe's office)

The idea of an "EU green prosecutor" was for the first time mentioned in a resolution. But similar calls are expected to be included in MEP's position regarding new EU rules for environmental crime.

The European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), which started operations last June, is currently responsible for uncovering and prosecuting fraud involving actual EU funds.

MEPs are now pushing the European Commission to extend its powers to cover green crime, given its lucrative nature and the likelihood that these offences will increase as the EU introduces stricter climate rules.

"Green crime means low-risk, high pay," Romanian liberal MEP Vlad Gheorghe, lead negotiator of this file, told EUobserver in an interview on Tuesday (28 June).

"But there is currently no specialised body for green crime in any European institution," he said, adding that only one police officer is investigating eco-crimes across 27 member states within Europol, the EU's police agency.

For Gheorghe, the idea of having EU green prosecutors, which today may seem outlandish, could be implemented within two years.

He said the EU needs specialised prosecutors "as soon as possible" to tackle cross-border environmental offences that generate millions of euros of losses every year for the EU at the expense of biodiversity, the environment and human health.

"We are losing the race against crime… we need the anti-mafia of green crime," he warned.

The pull factor

Overall, only a few EU countries have their own specific law enforcement units to investigate eco-crimes.

Environmental offences are not punished by criminal law in many member states — which treat them as administrative offences — and environmental criminal networks take advantage of the lack of harmonised prosecution rules within the EU, Europol warned on Monday.

In a report, they said environmental criminal networks use fraudulent documents and corruption practices to facilitate their activities.

Yet, the identification of the criminal networks behind green criminal offences remains one of the biggest challenges for law enforcement.

Meanwhile, climate change is expected to function as a "push and pull factor" for environmental crime, the EU police said.

"The increasing scarcity of natural resources triggers organised crime interests in terms of profit over their future allocation".

Illegal waste trafficking generates between €4bn to €15bn annually, revenues from illicit wildlife trade go up to €9bn and illegal logging is worth about €6bn.

The commission has been open to exploring the idea, but the proposal would also need the backing of EU member states — with Gheorghe fearing pushback from Hungary and Poland.

Nevertheless, the commission told EUobserver that they are not planning to add environmental protection to the EPPO competencies at the moment.

"The EPPO has started operations only a year ago and is already handling a high number of cases to investigate and prosecute crimes affecting the EU budget. The priority is to continue to support the EPPO's successful operation following its launch last year," they said in an email.

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Could the Green Deal, the European Climate Law, the Just Transition Fund tackle illegal deforestation, arsons, water, air and soil pollution, traffic of ozone-depleting substances and protected species, poaching, overfishing etc.? The answer is clearly 'no', we need a prosecutor.

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