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SPEECH/ 11/789

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Introductory remarks to petitions committee

Petitions committee meeting (European Parliament)

Brussels, 22 November 2011

Madame Chair, Honourable Members,

It is a great honour for me to be with you today for the first time. I would like to thank you for giving me an opportunity to address your Committee because…

Implementation is for me a clear priority and you a strong partner and ally in improving it.

Environment is an area with the highest number of petitions. Environment is also an area with the highest number of infringement cases. As shown in the recent assessment of the 6th Environmental Action Programme, this reflects the fact that the environmental acquis is important and challenging, and that we need to do much more to ensure that it is properly implemented. So, it does not matter how well-drafted European Union environmental law may be, it will not be effective unless the principles, standards and procedures it lays down are properly applied and enforced.

Implementation matters because it concerns the health and well-being of citizens as well as the quality of the environment. To give just one example, 20 to 50% of the European population lives in areas where the air quality exceeds European limit values. For air quality alone, we therefore still have a major challenge to address – and the same goes for other environmental areas. A recent report has estimated the costs of non-compliance at €50 billion per year. There are significant benefits for economy as well: full implementation of EU waste legislation is estimated to generate 600,000 jobs and have costs that are €67 billion lower than if legislation is not implemented.

We certainly benefit from your work and respect it .

For all of us, implementation is a priority, and I therefore see your Committee as a natural ally in finding new ways of improving our record. I am especially grateful that Mrs Mazzoni and Mrs Auken participated actively at the Stakeholder Conference on implementation of environmental law last June.

While the Commission is legal guardian of the Treaty, the Petitions Committee provides a political dimension to the monitoring of implementation.

That political dimension is demonstrated in many ways. Your members are drawn from different political families and from different Member States, so together you present a European political perspective on issues that European citizens are concerned about. Therefore, you help to provide us with a "political pulse" for the work that we do because citizens trust you.

I am also conscious of the practice you have developed of making fact-finding visits to Member States, of meeting petitioners and engaging Member State officials – down to the regional and local level - and preparing reports on the basis of these, as you just adopted the report on Bulgaria this morning. This is useful information for us in our daily work.

I also appreciate the more strategic approach that this Committee has taken when analysing individual petitions to draw more horizontal policy recommendations. The recent report of Vice-President Iturgaiz on the implementation of waste legislation is a good example of that.

In the same vein, and even if this does not lead to a formal report, it is indeed good practice to discuss several petitions dealing with the same topic in different Member States, as you did for example in October on the wind farms issues. As you know, equal treatment of petitions is also key to maintaining a level-playing field for economic operators who might be affected.

From your work, you know how strong European citizens sometimes feel about the environment yet how difficult and complex the factual and legal issues often are. This can make reaching satisfactory decisions sometimes very difficult.

The challenge we are all grappling with – and this is reflected in last June's Stakeholder Conference on implementation – is how to ensure that citizens can have the confidence that rules agreed at European level will effectively deliver positive results on the ground.

Having a right to petition the European Parliament is in itself of course an important means of ensuring confidence.

However, European environment policy is based on the principle of preventing environmental problems wherever possible – and not simply on reacting to them once they arise. How then can we use the mutual experience that both institutions have gained from dealing with petitions in order to try to improve even more the situation for citizens in the future?

Let me focus now on new ideas for a better implementation.

I believe we need to think of two broad areas where systemic improvements can be made. The first involves better knowledge base, and the second, greater responsiveness at national level.

Good knowledge and information is key to environmental protection. I would like Member States to be much more open about the existence and the degree of environmental problems as well as about the steps they are taking to rectify them. What often frustrates citizens most is a sense that environmental problems are either being denied or that nothing is being done about them. I would mention one example in order to illustrate what I mean. Your Committee is aware of the petition on the toxic waste site at a former steel-works in the Irish harbour of Cork. Faced with a possible threat of fines, Ireland finally agreed to a proper site clean-up. But what is more, the Irish authorities agreed that all future steps would be regularly published online so that petitioners, Members of this Committee and citizens generally, can follow what is happening on the ground.

I would hope that such an " active dissemination " approach would become the normal way of addressing environmental challenges – in other words, identifying the problem, setting out the solution and reporting online the work being done to implement the solution.

For example, I think that more information should be available online on the state of the implementation of key directives. The Bathing Waters Directive and its yearly reports is a good example of the power of such a tool to improve concretely the quality of waters in Europe, through pressure from citizens and economic operators.

In this respect the user-friendliness of information provided is important so that citizens can find quick answers to questions such as: Is the air quality good in my city? Is the landfill next door permitted and inspected? Where are the Natura 2000 sites in my area?

I have also mentioned responsiveness – by which I mean the capacity and willingness of national authorities to engage constructively with citizens on environmental problems. As you all see in your daily work, environmental problems are often very local problems, and therefore, need local solutions . We do good work through the petitions or the infringements, but often we also come to our limits. And that is when – because of the nature of the problem – it might be more appropriate and efficient to address problems at a national, regional or even local level.

How can this be supported? Initiatives I have in mind relate in particular to

  • improved inspection mechanisms to help local enforcement on the basis of credible evidence;

  • helping Member States to deal with citizens' complaints in a structured way at national level, to find the solution more quickly;

  • improving access to justice, because at the end of the day, it is the local judge that is best placed to offer adequate remedies when the law is breached and no other solution has worked. In this context, I hope that our 2003 proposal for a Directive implementing the "3 rd pillar of the Aarhus Convention" can be a source of inspiration.

All of this I hope to discuss in the near future with all stakeholders so as to arrive at concrete suggestions of how to achieve improved knowledge and responsiveness.

There is now a strong consensus that the European Union should move towards a 7 th Environmental Action Programme. I would like it to reflect the outcome of such discussions in form of concrete initiatives that improve implementation that we all, Commission, Member States and others should be prepared to take over the years to come.

I very much hope that I can count on the full support of the members of this Committee in this endeavour. I am sure that your expertise with implementation justifies a strong role for you.

As a final point, I would like to refer to one specific piece of legislation, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive. I am aware that, based on experience, the Committee has expressed several concerns about redress in cases involving environmental impact assessments . This Directive shows how we can work concretely on monitoring the implementation of EU law, but also on bringing about recommendations for improving EU law.

A large number of petitions are indeed related to alleged deficiencies in EIAs carried out for projects in all 27 Member States. The EIA Directive is per se an instrument for environmental protection and integration.

It ensures a more transparent decision-making process in a large number of decisions where different interests are conflicting, for example nature protection and economic development (be it wind turbines in Denmark or ski lifts in Bulgaria). But it is not an instrument that gives absolute veto rights to local communities, as some petitioners seem to believe.

Overall, and given the widespread use of EIAs in the Union, I am satisfied with the implementation of the EIA Directive. However, there are still problems.

One of our main concerns is related to the "screening" procedure of projects listed in Annex II of the Directive, a problem also stressed by the Petitions Committee. The EIA Directive gives Member States broad scope to determine whether an EIA is required for such projects. Experience shows that Member States often exceed their margin of discretion, for instance by exempting some projects in advance from any obligation for an EIA or by using inappropriate criteria. We will vigorously bring infringement cases against Member States that abuse their discretion, but also provide guidance to Member States authorities to prevent such abuses.

In parallel, the Commission has initiated the process for the review of the EIA Directive. The existing experience from the implementation of the EIA Directive, including the lessons learnt from the investigation of petitions and complaints will be a valuable source of information.

I think that the example of the EIA illustrates how the interaction with the Petitions Committee can improve implementation of the EU legislation: we listen to the concerns of the citizens, we try to find appropriate solutions in the framework of existing legislation, and, where appropriate, we take legislative action.

To conclude, I want to make improvement of implementation a central point of the 7 th EAP, to be delivered in the second half of the next year. I count on help of a very dedicated incoming Danish Presidency and also Cypriot Presidency which will follow later.

I would have also hoped for your active participation in this process. Your knowledge and experiences gained in your work are extremely important. We would certainly like to profit from them also through my personal active engagement with your Committee.

Thank you very much.

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