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How EU environment law works

EU citizens can help to ensure that their national governments are adhering to European laws and regulations to protect the environment.

The EU legal system is simple – there are basically two types of legislation. Some laws – regulations – apply in the whole EU as soon as they are adopted. Others – directives – have to be converted into national law. Directives say what we are aiming to achieve, but let Member States decide how they will do it.

The Commission helps Member States by preparing checklists of points to be covered. We also publish scoreboards for legislation that show national authorities and the general public how they are progressing – and how they compare with the other Member States.

Legal action

Legal action is a last resort. In problem cases we first write to the Member States and ask them for all the facts. Then we try to find a way of solving the problem. If that doesn't work, we might resort to the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Once a national law has been notified we check that it covers all the points. If there are problems, we cross-check with the national authorities to make sure we have the facts straight before considering legal action.

The next stage is to check that the rules are actually followed. As well as making our own checks, we rely on reports from national authorities and information provided by citizens and environmental organisations. If we think a law is not being applied correctly we may take legal action.

Citizens can help a lot. Under EU law each individual has the right to obtain information from public authorities, and citizens can let us know if they think their authorities have failed to meet their environmental obligations. They can do this by filing a complaint, but it is often easier and quicker to use national courts. In fact, the Commission has been organising special training on EU environment law to help national judges and inspectors understand it better and to encourage more cooperation. We do the same for environmental organisations.

EU law has equal force with national law. Like national law it gives the national authorities, businesses and individuals both rights and obligations.