Commission plans to ditch circular economy and air pollution rules

Frans Timmermans at his Parliament hearing [European Parliament / Flickr]

Frans Timmermans at his Parliament hearing. [European Parliament]

The European Commission plans to scrap its flagship Circular Economy package and anti-air pollution rules next week.

The executive will ditch the rules from its 2015 work programme, sources told EURACTIV. That is set to be announced on Wednesday (17 December).

The Circular Economy package is designed to increase resource efficiency and recycling, and the Clean Air Package imposes rules that set member states’ air quality targets.

Sources told EURACTIV that Commissioners were handed a secret document yesterday (10 December) at their weekly meeting. The document, outlining a list of bills to be killed off by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, was taken back from the Commissioners, after it was read and discussed.

A leaked version of the work programme, which emerged today, appeared to confirm the environmental laws, and 78 other pieces of pending legislation, would be scrapped. The Air Quality rules would be modified in view of the 2030 Climate and Energy package, the document said.  

Timmermans is conducting a screening exercise of pending legislation as part of the Commission’s drive for “better regulation”. He sent a letter to the Commissioners last month, which suggested the rules were under threat.

Commissioners will meet on Tuesday to discuss the programme. An official announcement should follow the next day in the European Parliament.  The decision has not yet been finalised and could still change. Any withdrawal will first be discussed with the European Parliament and Council.

EURACTIV has obtained a copy of a letter sent by European Parliament President Martin Schulz to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, dated 9 November.  Schulz stressed concerns that environmental and social policy feature adequately in the programme.

Both bills were on a hit list of laws that trade association BusinessEurope sent to the Commission. BusinessEurope wanted the Circular Economy package to be withdrawn and re-tabled as an economic piece of legislation”. Laws to reduce air pollution should be withdrawn, they said.

>>Read: Gender equality and environment laws on business lobby hit list

Environmental NGOs responding by writing to Juncker and Timmermans, asking the Commission to speed up the implementation of the bills.

>>Read: Don’t axe gender and environment laws, NGOs tell Timmermans

Belgium, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden wrote a letter to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on 1 December, calling on him to keep the Air Quality and Circular Economy packages.

The European Commission said it could not confirm or deny the legislation would be ditched, as the contents of its work programme had not yet been finalised. “In some cases the Commission, whilst fully supporting the objectives behind certain proposals, is considering withdrawing them to replace them with more effective means to achieve them, with a realistic chance of being adopted,” the executive said (see positions for full statement).


The Circular Economy package was proposed in July 2014.  It contained a wide-ranging list of legally binding targets.  They include:

  •          a 70% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030;
  •          an 80% recycling target for packaging, such as glass, paper, metal and plastic by 2030;
  •          and a ban on landfilling of all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.

The package also lists a series of “aspirational” goals, which are not legally enforceable:

  •          a phase out of landfilling of all recoverable waste by 2030;
  •          a 30% reduction of waste by 2025;
  •          and a 30% fall in marine litter by 2020.

The Air Quality package revises rules first set in 1999. The 2013 proposal revises targets set in 1999, toughening then and increasing its scope to cover some new pollutants.

It fixes emissions ceilings at national level, for nitrogen dioxide for example, obliging member states to hit air quality targets. Supporters say it is the only way to reduce cross-border pollution in the EU. Sectors such as vehicle and fuel legislation, shipping regulations and UN agreements are covered by the draft law.

 The European Commission said, "This Commission is committed to making a difference and to doing things differently. The Work Programme for 2015 will be an opportunity for a fresh start, focusing on what truly matters for citizens – jobs, growth and investment.

"The Commission Work Programme will translate the ten points of the Political Guidelines into concrete deliverables.It will be the 'to do list' for 2015 - namely the new initiatives the Commission will deliver on next year because these can make a real difference for citizens.

"The Commission is also reviewing all pending proposals, in accordance with the principle of political discontinuity and to allow all the institutions to focus their efforts on priorities. The Commission is considering proposing to withdraw proposals which do not match the political priorities or which are out of date. In some cases the Commission, whilst fully supporting the objectives behind certain proposals, is considering withdrawing them to replace them with more effective means to achieve them, with a realistic chance of being adopted.

"The Commission is also looking at how to put a renewed effort into implementing what already exists, also making sure it's fit for purpose and works on the ground. To build consensus on priorities across EU institutions, the Commission has been preparing this Work Programme in a dialogue with both the European Parliament – in the context of the structured dialogue foreseen under the Framework Agreement - and for the first time also the Council – in the context of the General Affairs Council. This dialogue is still ongoing.

"On the 10th of December the College held an orientation debate on the 2015 Work Programme and intends to adopt the Work Programme next week."

Pieter de Pous, the European Environmental Bureau's policy director, said: “The Commission would be sending out an extremely negative message to European citizens. Basically, it no longer cares about improving their health and quality of life, nor will it try to protect the environment. Instead it is guided by short-sighted business interests which are unwilling to develop new and cleaner business models. Better regulation is deregulation pure and simple.”

Angelo Caserta, director of Birdlife Europe and current chair of the Green 10, the ten leading environmental NGOs in Europe, said, “We are deeply concerned that environmental protection and sustainability is not only going to be absent in the Commission’s Workplan for 2015 but that Vice-President Timmermans is even planning to withdraw two recently proposed pieces of legislation that would bring major benefits for citizens’ health, the environment as well as for Europe’s economy – the  air package and circular economy package.

“By withdrawing the air quality proposal, the European Commission would miss the opportunity to prevent as many as 58,000 premature deaths per year that result from air pollution, when the current toll is 400,000 premature deaths per year. We would also miss a huge economic benefit to the European economy as the air quality directive would deliver health benefits of €40-140 billion in avoided external costs and provide about €3 billion in direct benefits due to higher productivity of the workforce, lower healthcare costs, higher crop yields and less damage to buildings”.

“Withdrawing the circular economy package would also go against the number one priority of the European Commission.  Europe would fail to create as many as 180,000 new jobs through turning waste into a resource while making business more competitive and reducing demand for and dependency from costly scarce resources from outside the continent”.

Greg Archer, Transport & Environment's clean vehicles manager, said, "President Juncker and vice-president Timmermans think they are playing a clever PR card by axing the Clean Air package in a bid to cut so-called red tape. But the fact is air pollution is the single biggest environmental concern of Europeans and the press has stories week-in week-out about how dirty air is choking our cities and causes 400,000 premature deaths a year."

Keith Taylor, Green MEP for South East England, said, "Scrapping the EU's Clean Air package to limit air pollution at a time of increased scientific and medical understanding of the enormous risks that air pollution represents to public health would send out completely the wrong message.Allowing air pollution to go unchecked would mean sentencing children and adults to poor respiratory health and earlier death. I call on European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker to keep this crucial piece of legislation in order to protect the health of our 507 million European Citizens.”

In the European Parliament, the British Conservatives reacted with dismay to the news and called on the Commission to reinstate the package to next year's legislative programme. Julie Girling is the Conservative environment spokesman in the European Parliament and lead MEP on the proposed legislation.

She said, "We entirely support Mr Juncker's objective of making sure the EU concentrates on really effective legislation – and drops proposed laws which would be too complicated, too burdensome or would produce harmful knock-on consequences. But unfortunately this time he has chosen the wrong target."

Catherine Bearder, a Liberal Democrat MEP, agreed. "There is plenty of scope to improve EU regulation without taking an axe to environmental legislation," she said in a statement.  "Thousands of people in die prematurely each year from diseases caused by air pollution. To withdraw this proposal would send a message that the new Commission puts the interests of big business ahead of the health of European citizens."

"The EU should be cutting red tape, not cutting life expectancy."

Health NGOs were also dismayed. The European Respiratory Society and European Lung Foundation (ELF) are advocating for cleaner air as part of the Healthy Lungs for Life campaign. They said: “If the Junker Commission is looking for big problems to solve that will have a big impact on the health and well-being of the European population, air pollution is one of the most important as it affects 100% of us. By dropping the Clean Air Package and the National Emission Ceilings directive, Mr Timmermans is missing a  prime opportunity – the NEC Directive would reduce exposure to pollutants in the air which currently cause 400,000 premature deaths in Europe each year. It would also testify to EU’s leadership on green growth and environmental protection on the international stage, would act as a catalyst for energy policy targets and would encourage industry to innovate on their climate change action. Instead, the health concerns of Europeans have been dropped and our health will suffer."

Cor Lamers, mayor of Schiedam and member of the Committee of the Regions said, "I am concerned that the European Commission could withdraw its Clean Air Policy Package. Europe's cities and regions are committed to delivering improvements in air quality. In its recent opinion the Committee of the Regions stated that appropriate legal framework focusing on combatting air pollutant emissions at source is expected and should be applied. We expect the Commission to stay committed to the Clean Air Policy Package and its legislative proposals and allow the European Parliament and Council to reach a robust agreement as soon as possible."

Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, pledged to refocus the EU executive on the bigger political issues of the day and cut regulations seen as unnecessary or hampering business activity.

Juncker nominated his First Vice-President Frans Timmermans in a new role watching over the subsidiarity principle, whereby the EU should only intervene where it can act more effectively than national or local governments.

Timmermans is currently analysing about 130 pieces of pending legislation left over from the Barroso Commission to decide if any should be dropped.

>> Read: New Commission floats first 'kill list' of green EU laws

  • 16 December: College of commissioners meeting
  • 17 December: Presentation of the 2015 workprogramme

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