3rd Feb 2023

Brussels names and shames EU water laggards

  • The river Liffey in Dublin - Ireland is still ignoring a 2002 EU court ruling on water pollution (Photo: EUobserver)

The vast majority of EU states have not properly transcribed EU water law into national legislation, nailed research into water management economics or earmarked cash for investments - environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said in Brussels on Thursday (22 March), unveiling a scoreboard of progress on the Water Framework Directive (WFD) so far.

"Nineteen member states will have to rework national laws to put them in conformity with the directive," the Greek commissioner explained, with Italy, Greece, Finland and Sweden also failing to provide basic data on "at risk" water bodies, and with the same group-of-four plus France, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, Poland, Latvia and Malta also lagging behind the EU average on administrative and economic research targets.

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"Most member states have not identified the prices charged for water...several member states will also have to review their definition of water services," the commissioner added. "Without this the Water Framework Directive will be a hollow instrument."

In terms of the cash cost of boosting European water quality, a commission recommendation for the 12 new EU states to invest €35 billion of own and EU money in water management projects has seen a "disappointing" response. "Some of these countries have not yet allocated any funds, either national or EU funds, in this budget period," the commissioner said.

The WFD became EU law in 2000, setting up a complex legal strategy designed to secure "good status" for all of Europe's rivers, lakes and beaches by 2015. A European Commission video opening Mr Dimas' water symposium on Thursday summed things up neatly, with a soothing female voice saying Brussels now has a "legislative arsenal" to "reconcile our use of water with the requirements of nature."

The commission's progress report marks the end of the first phase of the WFD timetable (the strategic phase) and opens the second, decision-making and implementation chapter. The main task for EU states in 2007 to 2010 will be to turn raw river basin data into river basin action plans, create new legal instruments to complete the "arsenal" and to fall into line with existing water laws.

Brussels aims to get agreement on two new directives on flood management and toxic substances by the end of this year. Mr Dimas' officials are also drafting a July communication on water scarcity and drought risk and a mid-year green paper on how to adapt wider EU energy, transport and industry policy to take account of water and climate change issues.

Playing hardball

The commission is also playing hardball with countries that break existing water laws, some of which date back to the 1970s when the then European Community first got turned on to clean water.

Recalling old pollution "tragedies" such as Sandoz in 1986, when a fire at a Swiss chemicals firm turned the Rhine red, Mr Dimas said "think of what you felt at that time" and pointed out how much is at stake, with salmon populations or human swimmers now tentatively returning to many European rivers which were too filthy 30 years back.

The commission on Thursday sent a final written warning to Ireland on failure to implement a 2002 EU court ruling for letting e.coli bacteria-rich waste seep into groundwater in the counties of Cavan, Kerry, Leitrim, Mayo, Donegal and Sligo. The letter also reminds Dublin it has done nothing to comply with a 2005 EU court ruling on stemming toxic pollutants leaking into surface water resources.

One day earlier, Brussels took France to court for nitrate pollution in Brittany. Outstanding EU court cases against Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden and Greece are also ongoing. In Greece - Mr Dimas' home country - it is estimated that 18 municipalities are letting untreated waste seep into the water table, causing worrying levels of nitrate, ammonia and arsenic.

Historically speaking, the commission was forced to use the EU courts to strongarm 11 EU states, including Germany, to try to get them to transpose the WFD into national law in time.

Getting the public on board

Commissioner Dimas also took pains to point out the successes of the WFD so far, which has got 90 percent of EU sea bathing waters up to scratch and attracted public interest in the EU's annual summertime bathing water publications. Brussels is hoping to get more people interested in the broader goals of the WFD by launching a new water information portal - called WISE - this week.

"We have a lot of staff waiting to make sure the system doesn't crash when the millions of you log on to see what is there," the European Water Association's Jacqueline McGlade said, launching the project on Thursday.

But it remains to be seen if ordinary Joes in the EU will flock to the website, which is peppered with technical reports and intricate maps of European river basin data.

Commissioner Dimas' description of Danube river basin mapping so far as a "success story" in terms of WFD research compliance was also overshadowed by leading NGO WWF this week placing the river on a list of the world's 10 most endangered water systems.

Portuguese environment minister Francisco Nunes Correia stressed that a "historical and cultural" change will be needed in Europe if water management issues are ever to top the political agenda. While some European MEPs are wary of setting the water benchmarks too high.

"There's nothing worse for a parliament than passing something that won't be implemented," German conservative MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz said. "If so many member states have to be taken to court for infringement procedures by 2015, we have to ask how we are going to reach these goals and we're calling for [more information] on that, particularly in Germany."

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