Industrial revival hinges on new soil rules

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This article is part of our special report Industrial revival.

SPECIAL REPORT/ A soil framework directive necessary to boost industrial regeneration is creeping back onto the European agenda after years of being shelved by reluctant EU member countries.

Reinhard Bütikofer, the deputy leader of the Greens group in the European Parliament, said sentiment over the directive might be changing in Germany, which has resisted specific EU soil legislation.

Germany's upper house, the Bundesrat, has blocked it in the past, "but the majority in that chamber has changed since that last happened,” the former leader of the German Green party told EURACTIV in an interview.

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.

Such a directive would revivify Europe's industrial cities by preventing brownfield sites from remaining disused since it would compel governments to re-use old industrial land, Bütikofer said.

But little progress has been made and Germany, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Austria and Malta continue to form a blocking minority on the matter in the EU Council of Ministers, arguing that the directive would impinge on their national prerogatives.

“If you take a step back, however, that can hardly be a major problem because not many states have such legislation,” Bütikofer said.

Tackling the EU's industrial legacy

Although there is no specific EU legal basis for soil protection, the European Commission has continued to integrate the objective into other EU policies, including regional programmes focusing on the rehabilitation of old industrial sites.

According to the European Commission, around €3.1 billion has been allocated to the rehabilitation of industrial sites and contaminated land as part of the Cohesion Policy in the period 2007-2013.

Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany have allocated the most funding (€475 million, 371 million, and 332 million respectively), according to a Commission report on the implementation of the soil thematic strategy, published this year. 

"Thus, considerable resources are available to tackle the EU’s industrial legacy in eligible regions," the Commission said, adding that the Cohesion Funds and the European Regional Development Fund "should continue to support the regeneration of brownfield sites in the next programming period 2014-2020".

Turnaround in Germany could boost chances of European proposal

In Germany, the European funding programmes might have contributed to a change of heart amongst regional representatives in the Parliament's upper chamber.

The Bundesrat’s endorsement last November of an efficiency roadmap calling on European member states to reduce their net ‘land take’ – the amount of Greenfield land they develop – to zero by 2050, showed how the mood has changed, Bütikofer said.

“By asking for that to happen, by implication brownfield sites would have to play a major role in the development of any new business activities,” he said, adding that his party in the lower German house, the Bundestag, has “taken the initiative to try to kick-start [the soil directive] by demanding several resolutions to re-start the negotiations at European level.”

Bütikofer also called for environmental issues to play a central role in the European Commission’s upcoming review of industrial policy, expected this autumn.

“Let’s put a price on carbon and then – by creating that framework condition – make industry compete over who can deliver energy efficiency. That would be an important change in our policy approach. Presently the polluters are achieving a market advantage,” he said.

Bütikofer also called for greater control over derivatives trading in raw materials. Traditional industries are highly exposed to volatility in raw materials prices, he said, adding: “In the context of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive, we have imposed some conditions to protect bona fide hedging, but we need to defend against undue speculation.”

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.

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.

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