After eight years of negotiation, the European Parliament has reached an agreement with member states on legislation that will force national governments to apply criminal sanctions to those causing deliberate or negligent damage to the environment. The agreement will infuriate British Conservatives who have been fighting tooth and nail against what they called an "intrusion" into national criminal law.
After eight years of negotiation, the European Parliament has reached an agreement with member states on legislation that will force national governments to apply criminal sanctions to those causing deliberate or negligent damage to the environment.
The agreement will infuriate British Conservatives who have been fighting tooth and nail against what they called an "intrusion" into national criminal law.
But supporters of EU-wide measures, including the European Commission, have argued they are necessary to prevent offenders from taking advantage of the "scattered and disparate criminal law provisions".
To appease opponents, the agreed directive makes clear that criminal sanctions can only be requested in case of "substantial damage", death or serious injury and limited to areas where the EU has competence, leaving national legislation intact in other areas.
According to the agreed text, the list of punishable crimes will include:
- Unlawful discharge or emission of substances into the air, soil or water in a way likely to cause "death or serious injury to any person" or "substantial damage" to the environment;
- the shipment of waste;
- the killing, destruction, possession and trading of specimens of protected fauna or flora species, except when it concerns negligible quantities with little or no impact on the specimen's conservation status;
- any conduct which causes the significant deterioration of habitats within protected sites, and;
- the production, importation, exportation, placing on the market or use of ozone-depleting substances.
Any inciting or aiding and abetting of such conduct will equally be considered a criminal offence.
No minimum penalties
The Commission had originally hoped to impose sentences ranging from one to ten years' imprisonment or fines of â‚¬300,000 to â‚¬1,500,000, depending on the severity of the offence.
However, in the final compromise, which seeks to comply with the European Court of Justice ruling (see background), the level of penalty is left to the discretion of member states. The directive simply asks that they be "effective, proportionate and dissuasive".
'More ambition' demanded in fight against ship pollution
In a separate vote on 20 May â€“ designated as the first European Maritime Day â€“ MEPs adopted a report on the Commission's proposals for a new maritime strategy, which criticises its lack of action on cutting pollution from shipping.
They insist that maritime policy must make a "substantial contribution to reducing greenhouse emissions," notably by incorporating shipping into the EU's emissions trading scheme (ETS), as is being done with the aviation sector.
MEPs also urged the Commission to introduce minimum NOx emission standards for ships using EU ports and to promote better quality marine fuels with reduced sulphur content. To encourage implementation, they propose introducing taxes or charges on all ships sailing within EU waters or stopping at Community ports.
They further point out that the Commission is so far yet to act on limiting land-based pollution of the sea and call on the EU executive to put forward an action plan.
Safer ship dismantling
In another vote on 21 May, MEPs further called on the Commission to take action to prevent EU countries from "dumping" toxic waste on the beaches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where the large majority of EU-registered rusting ships are sent to be decommissioned.
The report calls on the EU to boost its own dismantling capacity and to ensure that all EU ships are pre-cleaned of hazardous waste if they are sent to poorer countries, where the fatal accident rate its much higher than in the EU and one in six workers suffers from asbestos.
Parliament's rapporteur on the Environmental Crime proposals Hartmut Nassauer (EPP-ED, DE) welcomed the deal on the legislation. "We are setting a precedent," he said, noting that the vote represented the first time that Parliament has approved a comprehensive piece of legislation implying the use of criminal law. He further advocated the possibility that the use of criminal sanctions could be extended to other fields than protection of environment in the future.
Despite the watering down of its original proposals and the lack of any common minimum penalty levels, the Commission said it believed the agreement would nevertheless constitute "a very important step towards improving the implementation of environmental legislation". "No more safe havens will be possible for those responsible for polluting our environment," said Commission Vice-President Jacques Barrot .
But according to Green MEPs , "while the proposed directive marks a positive first step, it is far from perfect". Monica Frassoni, co-president of the Greens/EFA group lamented the limits imposed on the scope of the directive and the fact that responsibility for implementing the new rules and for setting the level of fines will be in the hands of member states. "We will closely follow their actions in this regard," she said.
British Conservatives have long argued against EU-wide measures, saying "many EU countries, including Britain, are vigorously opposed to the Commission's intrusion into criminal law". Reacting to a 2005 judgement by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which granted the Commisison authority to require criminal sanctions against polluters, Timothy Kirkhope, a British Conservative MEP, said: "Far from being a shot in the arm for EU democracy, this is a serious blow to our right to decide these matters for ourselves."