European Commission pursues legal action against France and U.K. over water laws

Determined to ensure a high level of protection of the European Union's water resources, the European Commission has sent formal requests to France and the UK asking them to comply with rulings of the Court of Justice with regard to EU water quality legislation.

Apr 9th, 2003


April 9, 2003 -- Determined to ensure a high level of protection of the European Union's water resources, the European Commission has sent formal requests to France and the UK asking them to comply with rulings of the Court of Justice with regard to EU water quality legislation.

The ruling against France concerns nitrate-polluted surface waters in Brittany, and the ruling against the UK relates to areas vulnerable to nitrate pollution from agriculture. The requests take the form of "Reasoned Opinions" under Article 228 of the Treaty.

Failure to comply with Court rulings can result in substantial fines being imposed on the Member States in question. Non-compliance with EU water legislation means that lakes, rivers and coastal areas can suffer from or be put at greater risk of pollution - pollution that might otherwise have been avoided or reduced. Consequently, the benefits that society derives from clean surface water are compromised.

Commenting on the decisions, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said: "Preventing and reducing surface water pollution caused by nitrates are important goals of the European Union's environmental policy. The steps we are taking against France and the UK illustrate the Commission's strong commitment to these goals."

France

On 8 March 2001, the Court of Justice ruled against France for failing to comply with the 50mg/l limit for nitrates in surface waters in Brittany, as required by the Surface Water Directive (Case C-1999/266). These surface waters are used for the abstraction of drinking water.

The Court also criticized France because the measures which the French Government have taken lack the necessary coherence in order for them to constitute a systematic plan of action to combat pollution. In addition, the Court ruled that France had used poor-quality surface water for the abstraction of drinking water in Brittany, without telling the Commission why this water had been used or providing a plan for water resource management.

At present, the nitrate limit is still being exceeded, the trend in nitrate levels remains upward, and an adequate action plan detailing effective measures is not yet in place.

Consequently, the Commission has decided to send France a Reasoned Opinion, (a final written warning) under Article 228 of the Treaty. If France fails to comply, the Commission might refer the case to the Court again and ask the Court to impose fines.

United Kingdom

On 7 December 2000, the European Court of Justice criticized the UK for failing to identify its nitrate-polluted waters and to designate nitrate vulnerable zones in accordance with the Nitrates Directive (Case C-1999/069).

More specifically, the UK had chosen to omit nitrate-polluted ground waters and surface freshwaters that are not used for the abstraction of drinking water. The areas identified by the UK for clean-up operations under the Directive were, therefore, unacceptably limited.

Since the judgment, the United Kingdom has confirmed that additional areas have been identified in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and that these have been designated as nitrate vulnerable zones.

Having examined the matter, the Commission is of the view that the identification of areas in England, Wales and Scotland is insufficient and that further clarification must be provided to show that compliance with the judgment of the European Court has been achieved.

Consequently, the Commission has decided to send the UK a Reasoned Opinion, (a final written warning) under Article 228 of the Treaty. If the UK fails to comply, the Commission might refer the case to the Court again and ask the Court to impose fines.

Background

The Nitrates Directive aims to prevent the introduction into surface waters and ground waters of excessive levels of nitrates due to the presence of agricultural fertilizers and agricultural waste.

Excessive nitrate levels cause undesirable ecological changes in water and are a factor in the proliferation of harmful blooms of algae. They also adversely affect public health.

The Directive required Member States to carry out monitoring of surface waters and ground water, to identify nitrate-polluted waters and to designate vulnerable zones (zones of intensive agriculture that include nitrate-polluted waters) by December 1993.

The Surface Water Directive aims to protect the quality of surface waters used for the abstraction of drinking water. It sets standards and requires Member States to draw up a global and coherent plan of action for all waters, with a special focus on poor-quality ones. This was designed to promote a reduction of pollution within 12 years of the entry into force of the Directive.

Legal Process

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

For current statistics on infringements in general see:

http://europa.eu.int/comm/secretariat_general/sgb/droit_com/index_en.htm#infractions


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