EU Water Legislation - Fitness Check
In December 2019, the Fitness Check concluded that water legislation is broadly fit for purpose, with room for improvement related to investments, implementation, integrating water into other policies, chemical pollution, administrative simplification and digitalisation.
On 23 October 2020, an Inception Impact Assessment was launched. This initiative addresses the findings of the Fitness Check in relation to chemical pollution and the legal obligation to regularly review the lists of pollutants affecting surface and groundwaters. The feedback period ends on 20 November 2020.
In line with the Better Regulation requirements, stakeholders will be consulted in the course of 2021. The Consultation Strategy is available here.
The fitness check is a comprehensive policy evaluation of:
― the Water Framework Directive (WFD)
― the Environmental Quality Standards Directive (EQSD)
― the Groundwater Directive (GWD)
― the Floods Directive (FD).
It assesses whether the Directives are fit for purpose by examining their performance against 5 criteria set out in the Commission’s Better Regulation agenda: effectiveness, efficiency, coherence, relevance and EU added value.
The analysis of the evidence and the stakeholder feedback allow us to conclude that the Directives are largely fit for purpose. The Directives have led to a higher level of protection for water bodies and flood risk management than could have been expected without them.
Water is an essential societal need. The objectives of the Directives are as relevant now as they were at the time of the adoption of the Directives, if not more. They contribute to achieving a range of sustainable development goals. Water is also of great value in the EU economy.
The results for the Water Framework Directive (WFD), complemented by the Environmental Quality Standards Directive and the Groundwater Directive, are mixed. On the one hand, the WFD has been successful in setting up a governance framework for integrated water management for the more than 110,000 water bodies in the EU, slowing down the deterioration of water status and reducing chemical pollution.
On the other hand, the Directive’s implementation has been significantly delayed and less than half of the EU’s water bodies are in good status, even though the deadline for achieving this was 2015, except for duly justified cases. For the Floods Directive it is too early to draw conclusions, as its first implementation cycle only started in 2016, but this fitness check finds that the Directive has improved flood risk management.
Factors that have contributed to the effectiveness of the Directives in progressing towards their objectives include:
― the list of priority substances;
― the (binding) cross-references to the WFD’s objectives in other EU policies;
― EU funding;
― the widely applicable non-deterioration principle; and
― the Directives’ monitoring requirements.
One of the factors that hindered the achievement of better results was the fact that it proved more difficult than envisaged to establish a governance framework that takes into account the specific conditions in each Member State. In addition, good status depends not only on mitigation measures to address current pressures, but also on restoration measures to address pressures from the past. Finally, good status of water bodies also critically depends on the full implementation of other pieces of EU legislation, such as the Nitrates Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, as well as better integration of water objectives in other policy areas such as agriculture, energy or transport. This has not happened yet at the scale necessary.
The analysis in this fitness check finds that there is a trade-off between the flexibility of the Directives, which is needed to enable Member States to implement the most cost-effective measures, and the complexity that this flexibility creates, which forms an impediment to enforceability and achieving better results.
The fact that the WFD’s objectives have not been reached fully yet is largely due to insufficient funding, slow implementation and insufficient integration of environmental objectives in sectoral policies, and not due to a deficiency in the legislation.
© Alekseystemmer/iStock/Getty Images
Future outlook — lessons learned
Based on the findings, progress towards good status can be expected to be slow but steady.
The slow rate of progress can be attributed to the long time lags for nature to respond to measures. It is also more difficult to make progress visible due to the ‘one-out-all-out’ principle underpinning comprehensive protection of water bodies and ecosystems, under which good status is not granted if any of the relevant parameters are less than good.
As for future challenges, this fitness check finds that the Water Framework Directive is sufficiently prescriptive with regard to the pressures to be addressed, and yet flexible enough to accommodate emerging challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and pollutants of emerging concern (e.g. micro-plastics and pharmaceuticals).
A key area where there is room to improve and to achieve better results is on chemicals.
- Water Fitness Check (SWD(2019) 439
- Support study
The Commission announced this fitness check in October 2017 with the publication of the roadmap.
The Commission also organised an extensive stakeholder consultation in accordance with the consultation strategy established at the beginning of the process, including an online consultation. The synthesis report of the consultation will shortly also be available in all EU languages.
The Fitness Check is closely linked to the evaluation of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, which was carried out in parallel.