22nd Nov 2017

Brussels seeks powers to put polluters in jail

  • Brussels lists a set of offences such as unlawful treatment of waste to be considered criminal in the EU (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission is ready to move into national governments' criminal law, proposing to harmonise what constitutes serious environmental crimes and what the minimum level of penalties should be across the EU.

The draft paper – to be introduced on Thursday (8 February) and seen by EUobserver – calls for "more dissuasive sanctions for environmentally harmful activities, which typically cause or are likely to cause substantial damage to the air, soil, water, animals or plants".

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Brussels lists nine sets of offences, such as unlawful treatment of waste or unlawful possession of protected wild plants and animals, that should be considered criminal throughout Europe, with possible punishment ranging from one to ten years' imprisonment.

The paper also states when and to what extent companies could be held liable for environmental offences, with fines between €300,000 and €1.5 million being suggested.

It is the second time in the EU's legal history that Brussels proposes that national governments will no longer have the full sovereign right to decide what constitutes a crime and what the punishment should be.

The first precedent dates back to May 2006 when common rules on counterfeiting were tabled by Brussels' executive body.

Brussels' move into criminal matters was triggered by a landmark ruling on environmental crimes by the European Court of Justice in September 2005, which gave Brussels power to introduce harmonized criminal laws across the EU.

The court stated that it is up to the Commission to decide on penal measures in order to make community legislation effective.

"The court strengthened the possibilities to enforce the law, once member states have agreed on a European policy. This is a watershed decision", commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said in reaction to the September ruling.

By contrast, many EU members vigorously oppose any intrusion into criminal law by the commission, arguing that criminal sanctions should be a national matter only.

In this week's piece of legislation, to be introduced by commissioners Franco Frattini (justice and home affairs) and Stavros Dimas (environment), the European Commission argues that environment protection should be adressed through action at EU level.

"Environmental crime usually has cross-border implications, as it often involves trans-boundary activities and often has transboundary effects such as the resulting pollution of the environment", the paper states.

No action or non-binding initiatives by Brussels "would not tackle the problem effectively because perpetrators can easily benefit from the existing differences in national legislation," according to the document.

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