30th May 2023

Opposition to EU soil directive 'not logical,' commission says

  • Soil protection has proved to be a tricky piece of legislation for the EU system to digest (Photo: Wikipedia)

The new European environment commissioner has called strong opposition from key member states to EU-level legislation protecting soils "not logical."

"The argument barely stands up. It seems to me not so clearly logical," commissioner Janez Potocnik told reporters following a discussion by EU environment ministers on the state of play with one of Europe's most badly delayed pieces of legislation.

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"I will try to talk to ministers from the so-called blocking minority about what are behind their real concerns. There should always be a way out."

The EU's soil directive has trodden a tortuous legislative path and remains blocked at the level of the EU Council, representing the member states.

The European Commission first submitted proposals for a soil directive as long ago as September 2006 and the bill got as far as a first reading adoption by the European Parliament the following November.

A majority of member states back the idea of soil legislation, but first five and later six member states formed a blocking minority in the council, which has in effect frozen the legislation ever since.

Discussions on the proposal took place under the Portuguese chairmanship of the EU's six month rotating presidency, then again under the French presidency in 2008 and again under the Czech presidency in the first half last year.

Frustrating the process still further, the member states in opposition, Germany, France, the UK, Austria, the Netherlands and Malta, are blocking the bill on the very principle of having a soil directive rather than on a particular line or two of the law.

Mr Potocnik gave a robust defence of the legislative proposal as it stands however:

"The blocking minority still exists, so we have to think what is best to do. Opposition is more on the principle of subsidiarity than any thing else."

"[Opponents say] soil does not move across borders. It is obvious to everybody that this is true, but soil is also very much connected with climate change or biodiversity, which are today recognised as issues dealt with at the EU level.

"It's a pretty weak argument to say that it can't be dealt with at the EU level."

The commission's proposal had been to have member states identify which sites were contaminated, maintain a public list of these sites and announce when they would clean them up.

The arguments against have focused to a considerable degree on cost. The UK argues that much has already been done at the national level and that the current proposals are too expensive.

Germany has concerns that its regions, which are largely in the hands of the centre-right and close to farming interests, would oppose the additional burden the legislation would impose. Indeed, the maintenance of German opposition to the directive forms part of the governing parties' coalition agreement.

France for its part has wanted the identification of contaminated sites to happen only when a site is sold.

France may be wavering. It is thought that with the governing UMP doing poorly in the weekend's regional elections, the party is under pressure to beef up its green profile to both squeeze the resurgent Socialist Party and to try to poach some middle class voters away from Europe Ecologie.

"Many of the problems with the directive come down to politics rather than policy," the European Environmental Bureau's Pieter de Pous, who specialises in soil issues, told EUobserver.

If Paris dropped its opposition, the rest of the states would no longer be able to form a blocking minority.

Both southern and eastern EU states strongly back the measures; the southern states due to genuine problems that they have with soil erosion and eastern countries as a result of industrial soil contamination.

Slovakia, for example, has invested substantially in decontamination projects in recent years and is keen to win recognition for its efforts.

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