EU’s air pollution pariahs summoned to Brussels

Time to face the music: Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella will demand answers from some of the bloc's worst air pollution offenders. [European Commission]

Environment ministers from some of the EU’s worst air pollution offenders have been summoned to Brussels for an end-of-month meeting with the European Commission, where they will have to answer some tough questions.

EU environment chief Karmenu Vella has invited ministers from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia to come and discuss air pollution and what they are doing to tackle it on 30 January.

Those countries are currently in breach of EU air quality rules on nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter limits. Vella is understood to have written to each of the member states individually asking when they intend to comply with the law.

UK environment secretary Michael Gove will be among the ministers who have been asked to attend the Brussels meeting.

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According to sources familiar with the issue, the Maltese Commissioner warned that if adequate answers are not forthcoming, the Commission will have no choice but to proceed to the next stage of the ongoing infringement procedures: referral to the European Court of Justice.

In a blog post published on Wednesday (17 January), Vella explained that legal recourse may be “the only way forward”, citing the fact that 400,000 Europeans die every year due to poor air quality.

He added that “it is clear that the agreed air quality limits for several key pollutants had to be met already many years ago. It is also clear that the measures currently in place or planned by the member states are not enough to meet the agreed limits without delay.”

European Environmental Bureau expert Margherita Tolotto told EURACTIV that “it’s great to see the Commission continuing to take air pollution seriously” but warned that extra talks must “not come at the expense of accelerated infringement proceedings”.

She added that 2018 should be the year that persistent offenders are finally taken to task in the courts, a point shared by ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei, who called on Vella to make sure the upcoming meeting would be totally transparent.

He also pointed out that the Commission had already sent “reasoned opinions, final warnings before referral to court, almost a year ago to eight of the nine countries invited to the meeting”. “The time for talking is over,” he said.

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The threat of legal action by the Commission may have already influenced one of the offenders.

Czech minister Richard Brabec announced that his country would not join Bulgaria and Poland in appealing EU limits on coal-fired power plant emissions, insisting that the case had little chance of succeeding.

Brabec explained on Wednesday that “we are convinced there is no hope for the suit to succeed, not even from the legal aspect, but the ecological aspect is also key.”

Poland this month convinced Bulgaria, which just took over the rotating EU presidency, to join its crusade against toxic pollutant rules designed to safeguard human health.

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All three countries rely heavily on coal for power production, with Poland getting 90% of its electricity from the fossil fuel and the Czech Republic sourcing half its power from it. Czech media reported earlier this week that the country’s industry minister had recommended joining the suit.

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