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29th Mar 2020

EU court delivers blow on environment sanctions

  • 51 percent of EU waste shipments in 2005 found to be illegal (Photo: EUobserver)

The European Commission's hope of doling out specific criminal penalties for those who pollute the environment have been dealt a blow by the EU's highest court.

The European Court of Justice in a ruling on Tuesday (23 October) reiterated its landmark finding of two years ago that the commission can oblige member states to introduce common penalties for environmental pollution - in this case ship pollution - but closed the door to Brussels on one key issue.

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It said that the commission may not determine what criminal sanctions should be introduced for different environment crimes in member states.

"(...) contrary to the submission of the Commission, the determination of the type and level of the criminal penalties to be applied does not fall within the Community's sphere of competence," reads the crucial paragraph.

Inside the environment department of the commission there is strong disappointment with the ruling.

An official explained that the ruling has profound implications for a controversial piece of legislation proposed by Brussels earlier this year under which certain environment crimes such as unlawful treatment of waste or unlawful possession of protected wild plants and animals should be treated as a criminal offence.

The punishment ranged from one to ten years in prison.

The proposal is currently going through the first stages of the Brussels legislative process with member states already objecting to the sanctions clause. Now with the court ruling, the official said that the proposal will probably proceed without the section on specific penalties.

"I would liken it to a cat that does not have its teeth and claws ... a paper tiger," said the official.

The law, proposed in February, came as a reaction to the outrage sparked last year when EU toxic waste dumped from a tanker killed people on the Ivory Coast.

At the time environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said that the Ivory Coast incident was just the "tip of the iceberg" with 51 percent of EU waste shipments in 2005 found to be illegal.

"Member states have very different ways of punishing environmental pollution," said the commission official, so things are done in the country "where there are least sanctions."

The other alternative for the commission is to "start all over again with the law" but this "would take ages", said the official.

However, environmental officials have not given up all hope. They are already looking ahead to the new Reform Treaty, which may be in place by 2009.

Under this new set of EU rules, the commission would have a basis for proposing such a law again, said the official.

Reacting to the court judgement, Green MEPs were more positive.

"We welcome today's ruling, which confirms an earlier ruling on the community-wide nature of environmental crime," said a statement from the Greens in the European Parliament.

"We hope Member States will introduce penalties, which reflect the gravity of environmental crimes to public health and the environment," it continued.

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The European Commission on Tuesday said it is considering how to set up an EU criminal policy, with clear definitions on what is an EU crime and the minimum punishment to be applied across all member states. Financial market abuse is seen as strong contender for EU sanctions.

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