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Environment
News announcement14 October 2020Directorate-General for Environment

Commission proposes to improve public scrutiny of EU acts related to the environment

Today, the European Commission adopted a legislative proposal amending the Aarhus Regulation to allow for better public scrutiny of EU acts affecting the environment.

The proposed amendments improve the possibilities to request that the EU institutions review such acts to better ensure environmental protection. This will improve openness and accountability when it comes to environmental protection, contribute to greater transparency and a more effective pursuit of the EU environmental objectives and, thus, help achieve the systemic societal changes required by the European Green Deal.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, said: ‘Protecting the natural environment is a collective responsibility, and we all have a role to play. We want to improve the EU’s accountability in that. The world is facing unprecedented environmental and climate crises, and we have created the European Green Deal as our roadmap to deal with these challenges in the EU. We need the public to be a driving force in this green transition, and today’s proposals will strengthen their capacity to play that role.’

Since 2006, environmental NGOs have been able to request the internal review of individual scope decisions that EU institutions had taken in the field of environmental law. Today’s proposal will, in accordance with the Aarhus Convention, further enhance these possibilities.

The Commission has also adopted a Communication to facilitate access to justice in environmental matters for individuals and NGOs in EU Member States. National and local authorities take many important decisions when applying EU environmental laws, for example when granting permits to infrastructure projects or industrial installations that may pollute nature and soil, air or water. It is important to improve public scrutiny over these decisions as well. Today, there is still a number of practical or formal obstacles to going to court, including unreasonable court fees and restrictive procedural rules curbing NGOs’ ability to represent the public interest.

The Commission will take measures to help Member States improve their systems such as training, information sharing and capacity building, but is also prepared to take legal action in case of breaches of EU law.

 

Next steps

The Commission’s proposal is now to be negotiated and adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. The Commission will engage constructively with both institutions to facilitate adoption of the revised Aarhus Regulation before the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention in October 2021.

 

Background

The proposal amends Regulation (EC) No 1367/06, which was adopted by the European Parliament and the Council in 2006 when the EU became a Party to the Aarhus Convention. The aim of the Convention is to guarantee three important aspects of environmental governance: access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. The Compliance Committee under the Convention has previously raised certain issues as regards EU obligations concerning access to justice in environmental matters. Today’s proposals address those concerns.

 

Questions and answers

 

How will the proposal improve the current system of review for Commission decisions?

The system currently in place allows to challenge only individual decisions. However, the general, systemic decisions on which the individual decisions are based cannot be challenged directly.

Today, the Commission is proposing to further enhance the opportunities to request review of acts of general application.

Deadlines are also being extended to improve the quality of the scrutiny. Two extra weeks to consider whether to launch a request for review are to be added, while the Commission would get four extra weeks to reply.

 

Why has the Commission adopted a Communication asking EU Member States to improve access to environmental justice?

Many decisions under EU law that can have environmental impacts are taken by the Member States. The EU legal system depends on well-functioning national courts, which are key to protecting EU rights of individuals and NGOs. But today there are still too many national legal obstacles to safeguard these rights.

The Commission will take measures to help Member States improve their systems (such as training, information sharing, capacity building), but is also prepared to take Member States to court, if found in breach of EU law.

 

Why are environmental NGOs given the right to public scrutiny?

In a system based on the rule of law and on accountability, the executive powers are subject to checks and balances, i.e. to forms of scrutiny and control, to ensure that these powers are used in line with the laws. This is also a way to increase the confidence of the public in the quality of the decisions made.

Environmental NGOs are ‘vehicles’ through which civil society, and the public opinion at large, has the opportunity to engage in shaping EU environmental policies, which are of wide societal interest.

 

How do the new rules affect individual citizens?

The rules of EU environmental law, for the most part, protect the public interest and not merely the interests of individuals as such. This is why it is NGOs, representing the public interest, rather than individuals, who are given rights of review under the Aarhus Regulation.

However, individuals already have other opportunities under EU and national laws to have their say, protect their rights and act against harm.

Individuals can, first and foremost, use their national courts to safeguard their rights. This is also the most effective way to ensure that EU law is upheld and effectively implemented all across the EU. In addition, in appropriate cases, individuals also have direct access to the Court of Justice of the European Union when the decision taken concerns them.

 

How do the proposal and the Communication deliver on the European Green Deal?

If the European Green Deal is to succeed and deliver lasting change, it has to engage Europeans. The public is and should remain a driving force of the green transition and should have the means to get actively involved in developing and implementing new policies.

The Green Deal’s aim of transformative change means incorporating sustainability and environmental awareness into every sector of our societies and economies. The consistency of EU actions and decisions will be key. We cannot regulate in support of the environment one day, only to undermine that the day after with a decision in another field.

The new proposal significantly improves the possibilities for NGOs to act as a watchdog and challenge the Commission, if they find that there are grounds to challenge a decision for undermining EU environmental laws.

Such ‘checks and balances’ are necessary to develop public trust, which is a key component for the European Green Deal transition.

 

Details

Publication date
14 October 2020
Author
Directorate-General for Environment