The European Commission needs to be more engaged in environmental disputes between EU countries, like the escalating tensions between Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic over the disputed open-pit mine in Turów, Poland, writes Martin Hojsík.
Martin Hojsík is a Slovak MEP for the Renew Europe Group. He sits on the environment committee as well as several other committees.
As an MEP coming from a Central European country with communist history, there are some features of the EU, which are particularly important to me. Stronger environmental laws and public participation were not commonplace in my homeland. Membership of the European Union did help to improve it significantly.
Nevertheless, people dealing with environmental protection or trying to effectively participate in decision making in Central Europe could tell the long stories illustrating how hard it is even today to ensure these principles are respected and followed.
The European Commission is often the last hope for people fighting against breaches of law at the system level to ensure nature or health protection, justice and remedies. These fights are even more intricate when it comes to projects and decisions at the national level with the cross-boundary effects.
Over the last year and a half, I have been involved in one particular example of such a fight, which grew into an unprecedented cross border conflict between the member states and ultimately to a lawsuit.
The dispute around the open pit Turów lignite mine and its operation on the borders of Poland, Czechia and Germany is a perfect example of when we urgently need the Commission to act. Unfortunately, it is not really happening.
It is one year since the licence for the Turów mine expired and since the Polish authorities gave the operation special prolongation for six years. Neither the opposition from local citizens and municipalities suffering from the mining activities nor the petition and complaint to the European Commission did help to end them.
Another year of injustice and continuing environmental damage resulted in the Czech government losing patience and taking Poland to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The case is unprecedented; it is the first time one member state sues another for environmental reasons. What is more, at the beginning of this year, representatives from Zittau, a town in the German region of Saxony, filed another complaint to the Commission.
Meanwhile, the Polish authorities continued as if nothing was happening and now they prolonged the concession until 2044. To add to the ignorance of Rule of Law, Science and Climate Emergency they triggered an advertising campaign in the streets of Brussels in support of Turów. With a picture of a young girl.
People neighbouring the mine are desperately fighting for a healthier environment, for sources of water they lose every day, for protection against landslide effects on their houses – the impacts of the coal mine, which will only grow bigger in the future. They ask the Commission to act, but with little results. The only result is an escalation of tension in the region.
I believe this is one of the most important jobs of the Commission – to watch over and uphold the rule of law. To help to decide where the lawful process lays. It would be unfair to say that the Commission did not act at all.
It did start a pilot process, arranged several mediation meetings and, at the end of the year, published a reasoned opinion, which was important for the Czech Republic to bring the case to the Court.
However, from my point of view, it was not enough. We should not observe one member state suing another when other and more effective measures are in place, including the infringement process.
It is not time for declarations and long discussions about climate and environmental crises and to implement the European Green Deal. It’s time to act.
To be successful on our journey, we need the Europeans to see the clear and just path towards a better future. We cannot talk on the one hand about climate change and, on the other, leave the member states to fight against projects, which cause the very problem.
If we want the Europeans to trust the European institutions and politicians, we need to be consistent and truthful. This is also true for the European Commission, whose role is to be active in member states disputes, not leaving it on their shoulders and on the shoulders of the citizens alone.