Commission forced to scale down soil law

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Following years of negotiations, five EU member states still form a blocking minority on the European Commission's proposal for a directive on soil protection, leaving some to wonder whether the EU executive should reconsider its approach to addressing this environmental issue.

Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK reiterated their opposition to the proposals after the Spanish EU Presidency's had attempted to find political agreement in the Council last week (4 February).

Identification of contaminated sites remains one of the main sticking points and a sensible and cost-efficient system for their remediation is yet to be found, one diplomat told EURACTIV.

Meanwhile, political pressure to protect soil is mounting amid recognition of its role in capturing carbon and thus combating climate change.

During his hearing last month, new EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik announced that the Soil Directive would be one of his top priorities (EURACTIV 14/01/10). The European Parliament has also stressed the need for better soil protection on several occasions.

Last year, the House adopted a non-legislative resolution on the deterioration of agricultural land in the EU, which called on the Council and the Commission to explore strategies for the recovery of damaged soil on the basis of incentives to limit soil deterioration.

Opting for less binding instruments?

While the Spanish Presidency still expects a political agreement to be reached when EU environment ministers next meet on 15 March, there is "little hope" of progress, the diplomat said.

Unless high-level discussions behind the scenes can change some countries' minds, the directive will not happen, the source said.

While the Commission hardly ever recalls its legislative proposals, some member states are starting to ask whether it should not reconsider the law and opt for a more strategic approach that does not seek to regulate every step in too much detail and respects the subsidiarity principle instead.

In particular, Germany and the UK are claiming that the EU does not have the power to legislate on soil and that such laws would interfere with domestic policy measures.

The European Commission proposed a Framework Directive on Soil Protection in September 2006 as part of a broader soil strategy (EURACTIV 25/09/06).

The strategy sets out a series of policies aimed at protecting soil and using it sustainably by preventing further soil degradation, preserving its functions and restoring degraded soils. The measures are supposed to be partly implemented via the proposed framework directive.

The European Parliament adopted a first-reading opinion on the dossier in November 2007 (EURACTIV 15/11/07) and extensive discussions between national delegations have taken place since 2007 under the Portuguese, French and Czech EU Presidencies, without success.

A Czech progress report dated June 2009 details the main sticking points of the proposal.

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