Pressure grows on Commission to change environment law after UN rebuke

EU judges could hear more environmental cases after a UN panel ruling. [Cédric Puisney/Flickr]

EXCLUSIVE/ Green campaigners today (27 March)  heaped more pressure on the European Commission to change EU law to make it easier for NGOs to bring lawsuits over EU environment policy.

15 climate and environment organisations wrote to the executive, demanding it change its rules to help individuals and groups take decisions to the EU courts.

The letter, obtained by and written by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, comes after a United Nations panel accused the EU of failing to observe the UN’s Aarhus Convention.

It ratchets up the pressure on the EU to endorse the committee findings at a crunch September meeting and to change EU law to make legal challenges easier.

The panel’s ruling is not binding but it is embarrassing.  The EU is a signatory of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees citizens the right to challenge environmental decisions by regulators.

“No NGO or individual has ever been granted legal standing before the Court of Justice of the EU to challenge decisions taken by EU institutions, agencies or bodies, except in relation to refusals to disclose documents,” the letter, reads.

“Alarming number of Europeans are questioning the value and legitimacy of the EU itself,” the letter to Commission First-Vice President Frans Timmermans and Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella continues.

“Citizens having access to justice to directly challenge decisions of the EU institutions is a prerequisite to democratic accountability.”

Law changes

The bloc’s Aarhus Regulation, which puts the UN commitment into EU law, does not allow legal action against decisions of “general scope”.  This makes it more difficult to oppose initiatives that could affect a large number of organisations or businesses.

ClientEarth, an NGO of environmental lawyers that has won landmark court battles against national governments over EU air quality standards, wants the regulation amended.

They are also pushing for the European Court of Justice to alter their interpretation of existing treaty law to recognise that EU institutional decisions that impact the environment are “of direct and individual concern” to green NGOs.  This will make it easier for cases to be heard.

After the panel issued its 17 March rebuke, a Commission spokesman said it had not yet assessed the UN recommendations.

“But we are sure we have been acting on a sound legal basis,” he said.

Crunch meeting

The letter was sent ahead of a September meeting of signatories to the Aarhus Convention, including the EU. The committee’s findings will be discussed.

The NGOs, which include Greenpeace, Climate Action Network, Friends of the Earth and WWF, called on the EU to endorse the panel’s ruling before amending its Aarhus regulation.

“We call upon you to seize this opportunity to increase the legitimacy of the EU institutions by closing the gap between decision-makers and citizens,” their letter reads.

“Failure to do so simply because the EU is the subject of the findings would set a dangerous precedent and send a stark message to its citizens, other non-EU parties to the Convention and the rest of the world that the EU has a highly selective approach when it comes to the rule of law.”

The other NGOs signing the letter are BirdLife Europe, CEE Bankwatch Network, Environmental Pillar, European Environmental Bureau, Health and Environment Alliance, Transport & Environment, Pesticide Action Network Europe, Instituto del Medio Ambiente and the Justice and Environment Network.

Many of the organisations represent national branches across the EU to Brussels policymakers.

Public awarded greater say over EU environmental law

Public participation in environmental decision-making is to be strengthened after EU Ministers agreed to the principles of the Aarhus Convention. But they stopped short of allowing NGOs the right to drag member states to court.

The Aarhus Convention was concluded in 1998 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. It foresees access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice on environmental matters. The EU ratified the Aarhus Convention on 17 February 2005.

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