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Brussels, 7 March 2012
Communication on Implementing EU environment legislation – Questions & Answers
The two communications are complementary but distinct. The 2008 Communication centred round the strategic use of enforcement powers by the Commission to tackle breaches of EU environment law. The focus of the 2012 Communication is about how to improve implementation at Member State level and collectively achieve better environment on the ground. The new Communication contains ideas that will help Member States improve their performance and is an expression of the Environment Commissioner's wish to be "strictly helpful, helpfully strict".
Implementing EU environment law is cost-effective. Studies show that when factors such as health costs are taken into account, non-implementation actually costs more than implementation.
Location specific examples:
Apart from serving an overall objective that is cost-effective, several ideas in the Communication represent approaches that have stand-alone economic benefits. Placing more environmental information online, for example, should contribute to the knowledge economy and fit with a wider emphasis on e-government.
The 7th EAP will cover issues other than implementation but implementation will be a key overarching theme. Stakeholder views on the ideas set out in the Communication will be taken into account in the formulation of the 7th EAP proposal (which will appear later in 2012). In addition, some ideas in the Communication may lead to specific legislative proposals with respect to inspections for instance.
"Knowledge" means information on the state of the environment and information about how EU environment laws are implemented. This sort of knowledge is important for all sorts of reasons. Citizens need to have confidence that EU environment laws are working in practice in their neighbourhood. Environmental authorities and professionals need to have access to information that shows where and how they should be devoting their efforts and resources. EU institutions and the European Environment Agency (EEA) need to analyse and present the picture at European level. Broadly speaking, the Communication draws attention to the benefits in terms of transparency, efficiency and usefulness of having more and better information available online.
SEIS forms part of the background to the Communication and is central to how the Commission proposes to improve knowledge in the field of the environment. SEIS is key because it recognises that improving knowledge requires co-ordinated progress across several fronts – in relation to the rules covering the creation and dissemination of environmental information, in the streamlining of reporting provisions, and in the way that information and communication systems are set up and interact with each other. A SEIS Implementation Plan explaining the state-of-play and setting out how improvements can be made is close to completion and is due to be presented around summer 2012. This should underpin the goal of improving environmental knowledge.
JRC and Eurostat are part of the Commission. They work closely with the Commission's Environment Directorate-General on issues to do with monitoring techniques and statistics. The Commission also cooperates closely with the EEA which has a growing role in supporting the analysis of Member State implementation reports.
Each individual EU environment law – whether it deals with end-of-life vehicles or drinking water supplies or any other subject areas – is there to improve how the world works. These improvements can only be properly understood by citizens – in particular as regards their own localities – if they have a clear picture of the key actions being carried out to implement those laws.
To give just one example, EU drinking water rules aim at providing citizens with safe drinking water. Providing safe drinking water involves a chain of interventions including protection of the drinking water source (groundwater, lake, river), physical abstraction, treatment to remove any harmful bacteria and other types of contamination, monitoring of the distribution pipework to avoid leaks and waste, infrastructure investments and measures such as water pricing to help avoid wasteful use of water. It can be time consuming to obtain joined-up information on how all of these interventions fit together. A SIIF would aim, together with the range of SEIS initiatives, to help Member States set up transparent information systems that make this information accessible online. For example, one would be able to identify on a map abstraction points, source protection zones, treatment plants and distribution networks and have links to related information such as leakage reduction programmes.
Citizens, experts and businesses would all benefit from such transparency. The Commission's role would be to assist Member States in identifying the types of information that would feature in a given information system, so that similar information could be found across the EU.
Knowledge on its own is not enough. Checks and balances are also crucial. Concrete implementation problems – such as a discharge that is causing illegal pollution or a required procedure that is not being followed – require concrete responses. The Communication recognises that there is no "magic bullet" for all such problems. Different actors need to be mobilised and it is necessary to support these in different but complementary ways. Hence the references to inspections and surveillance, complaint-handling, access to justice, network cooperation and partnership agreements.
Considerable progress has already been made on criteria for "classic" industrial inspections within Member States, with a move from non-binding to binding criteria over the past decade. However, less progress has been made on criteria for dealing with issues such as wildlife crime and illegal developments and interventions. The Communication refers to several options for improving the situation, and these will be examined closely in the coming period. The Communication does not specifically propose the creation of an EU environment inspectorate but it refers to a number of possible options for complementing national efforts at the EU level.
Citizens can already complain to the Commission and it has its own established complaint-handling procedure. The Communication draws attention to this issue because experience shows that citizens sometimes complain to the Commission out of frustration at the lack of a national remedy. It would be illogical to argue in this context that complaints at national level should remain a matter of subsidiarity. Indeed, in relation to consumers, precedents already exist for national grievance mechanisms. The Communication suggests that it would be worthwhile to explore how such mechanisms could be established in the field of the environment.
Time may have stood still on the 2003 proposal, which has not progressed to become an adopted legal instrument, but this is not the case for access to justice. The Court of Justice of the European Union has made a number of decisions that go in the direction of greater access to national courts for citizens and NGOs. This case-law is welcome, but there is now considerable uncertainty about the best way to put it into practice. The Communication suggests that it is in the interests of all concerned to look again at the issue of access to justice.
The Commission is interested in networks of experts because they facilitate sharing of knowledge and experience across the EU. The Commission has already had a positive experience of cooperation with IMPEL, the EU network of inspectorates, and has drawn on that network's expertise to lay the foundations for an EU instrument on inspection criteria.
The Communication leaves this concept quite open. The context will determine the nature of such an agreement. However, the basic idea is to explore how targeted agreements with Member States can improve implementation and/or resolve specific problems. An example might be an agreement under which EU support is provided for a Member State information system that supports implementation.
See also IP/12/220