Commission holds on to soil protection law

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Amid resistance from EU ministers, Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik has defended an EU directive on soil by claiming that national policies are not delivering and land management increasingly affects cross-border issues like climate change, biodiversity and water pollution.

"The level of ambition of member states on soil protection is high and therefore it makes no sense to downgrade the level of ambition of the Commission proposal," said Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, speaking on 15 March after yet another Council debate on proposals for a Framework Directive on Soil Protection.

Meanwhile, the Spanish EU Presidency said the bloc needed to "face reality" and recognise that there is not enough agreement between member states to proceed with the draft law.

Some delegations are already suggesting that after years of deadlock over the dossier, it is time for the EU to look at "alternative ways" of promoting soil protection without overtly focusing on legislation.

Germany, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Malta continue to form a blocking minority in the Council on the grounds of respecting the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and concerns over its expected cost and administrative burden.

While Poto?nik stressed that "subsidiarity is not an excuse for non-action," he promised to shift the focus on to aspects related to the proposal in the months to come in a drive to get all member states on board.

He said he was "ready to have a fresh look at the file" but expected to hold a constructive debate with member states, insisting that the "added environmental and legal value of the directive" should not be jeopardised.

While some member states have done "decent work," the agreed non-binding instruments on soil protection "have clearly not worked well," Poto?nik declared, arguing that "eroding the Commission proposal would probably not bear fruit" either.

Soil: A cross-border issue

While some delegations stressed that as soil does not move between member states like air and water it should not be subjected to EU legislation, Poto?nik argued to the contrary.

"I have difficulties in believing that this is something that does not have a cross-border effect," he said. Soil has a major influence on climate change and biodiversity, which both have a cross-border effect, and water and air pollution also result from bad soil management," he added.

Cost of inaction

Responding to criticism of the potentially high implementation cost of the proposed directive, Commissioner Poto?nik regretted that people see only the cost of action and stressed that "the cost of non-action is not seen, but is very high".

A Commission impact assessment shows that soil degradation in Europe costs €38 billion every year, Poto?nik noted.

Soil biodiversity

After the publication earlier this month of a report highlighting the importance of soil in mitigating climate change, the EU executive published on Friday (12 March) a new report on soil and biodiversity.

The report underlines that society "depends on soil for food, fibres, construction materials, clean water, clean air, climate regulation, and antibiotics such as penicillin and streptomycin," which are derived from soil. But the "productive capacity" of soil is threatened by inappropriate agricultural practices, forest fires, poor irrigation practices, land conversion and urbanisation, it says.

The report suggests that mismanaging soil biodiversity could worsen climate change, jeopardise agricultural production and compromise the quality of ground water.

The European Commission has been arguing for binding legislation on soil protection since 2006, when it proposed a Framework Directive on Soil Protection as part of a broader soil strategy (EURACTIV 25/09/06).

But little progress has been made and Germany, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Malta continue to form a blocking minority in the Council on the matter.

The six delegations oppose the Commission proposal on the grounds of respecting the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and concerns over its expected cost and administrative burden. Furthermore, they question its added value in relation to existing EU law.

Meanwhile, the latest progress report on the dossier by the Spanish EU Presidency recalls that a majority of delegations believe an EU directive on the matter is needed to provide a more holistic approach to soil protection, and complement EU environmental legislation on air and water with laws on soil, for which no binding EU legislation exists.

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