Thursday

28th Oct 2021

Opinion

Why the EU now needs a 'Green Prosecutor'

  • 'Hey Greens, 1.5 degrees is the limit - not the target'. Poster in Berlin, Germany (Photo: Matt Tempest)

Tornados in Prague or hot days with more than 30 degrees Celsius in Helsinki? Climate change is no longer up for debate: it's happening now. And we all feel it, no matter where we live, work, or pay taxes.

The EU Green Deal sets a courageous goal: zero emissions by 2050. But is this really possible?

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The last few years have seen a rise in environmental crimes, as highlighted by Europol which identifies environmental crime as one of key threats facing the EU.

This also reflects the global emergency, with Eurojust stating that environmental crime has become the fourth-largest criminal activity in the world, with an annual growth rate between five and seven percent. So 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'.

Environmental crime not only heavily and permanently damages biodiversity and harms human health, but also involves corruption, money-laundering, violence and even murders.

To cite just one example from my own member state, during 2014-2019 in Romania we counted six killed and 650 wounded in violent attacks on foresters and activists trying to fight illegal logging.

There is no universally-accepted definition of environmental crime. Europol and the EnviCrimeNet have suggested that "any illegal action with a negative, harming impact on the environment can be regarded as environmental crime, as well as any offence in relation to endangered species."

At EU-level article 3 of Directive 2008/99/EC on the protection of the environment through criminal law criminalises a number of behaviours and creates criminal offences with regard to pollution, waste, use or release of dangerous substances, protected species and habitats.

Green crime comes at a high cost to all European economies, as massive public revenues are being lost and illicit exploitation of natural resources hampers the development of legal businesses.

Again speaking about deforestation, the commission's report on Romania estimates illegal logging costs to be up to €6bn every year. So it almost makes no sense to the common citizen for this tax-money to be invested in climate protection and green transition, while environmental crime is free to affect financial interests of the EU and member states.

Low-risk, high profit

It is also worth mentioning that for perpetrators, environmental crime remains a low-risk and high-profit activity.

Europol estimates that it can be as profitable as drug trafficking, but with much lower risk of detection and punishment.

Environmental crime frequently operates at cross-border levels and is carried out by organised crime groups involved in drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings or firearms, financing of terrorism or corruption. Environmental crime tends to become ancillary and sometimes is not investigated or prosecuted to its full potential, or at all.

Last, but not least, the implementation gap in EU environmental legislation remains a major challenge, showcased by a high number of infringement procedures and citizens' petitions on environmental topics.

Green crime remains significantly underreported across all jurisdictions, representing less than one percent of the total casework of Eurojust during 2014-2018. These aspects also emphasise two major factors acting as enablers for green crime: corruption and collusion in public officials at local, regional and national level.

The solution?

It is clear now that the EU needs to take serious measures to address all these.

It is obvious that current institutions and current approach to environmental crime is not enough to stop perpetrators and deactivate large criminal groups making huge profits.

We need a dedicated independent mechanism for green crime on EU level: the impact on Romanian, German, French biodiversity does not stay local, as the environment has no borders.

The solution is an EU Green Prosecutor to create the framework for more efficient reporting of crimes, facilitate cross-border investigation, eliminate corruption and complicity of public authorities in environmental matters. It should also guarantee harmonised prosecutions procedures and sanction measures across all the EU

We take pride in the ambitious targets set by our Green Deal. But in order to accomplish these ambitious targets, the EU needs to step up and show leadership in fighting green crime.

The establishment of an EU Green Prosecutor and a EU Environmental Crime Prosecution Authority is the proper way to do so.

As an independent body, it will facilitate information gathering, deliver investigative support, coordinate cross-border operations, facilitate prosecution and bring criminals to justice, alert national authorities to risk factors and share best practices.

At the same time, it will raise public awareness of the ways to tackle environmental crime and its activities will be instrumental in investigating other types of serious crime, in strong cooperation with the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO), responsible for investigating and prosecuting fraud against the EU budget.

Author bio

Vlad Gheorghe is a Romanian MEP with the Renew Europe liberal group.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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