Hungary is one of six countries referred to the European Court of Justice because their governments have not done enough to improve air quality. Photo: / Tea Meister CC BY

Six countries taken to court over air quality breaches

If EU countries do not urgently address their air pollution problems, the European Court of Justice can impose fines amounting to millions of euro.

On 17 May the European Commission announced that it has referred six EU governments – France, Germany, the UK, Hungary, Italy and Romania – to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failing to take adequate measures to tackle air pollution.

The decision follows an ultimatum given in January to nine countries to produce credible plans to effectively tackle illegal levels of the air pollutants nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10) (see AN 1/18, pp 14–15).

France, Germany and the UK have breached the binding air quality limit values on NO2 and failed to take appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible, the Commission said, while Hungary, Italy and Romania were referred to court over persistently high levels of PM10. The limits set out under EU legislation on ambient air quality (Directive 2008/50/EC) had to be met in 2010 and 2005 respectively.

On 30 January, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella convened nine member states for ministerial meetings in Brussels in an effort to find solutions to address their serious air pollution problems. The six countries now referred to court did not, according to the Commission, present credible, effective and timely measures to reduce pollution, within the agreed limits and as soon as possible, as required under EU law.

As regards the remaining three countries – the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Spain – the Commission concluded that the measures being put in place or planned appear to be able to tackle the identified gaps, if correctly implemented. The Commission said that it will continue to closely monitor the implementation of the measures as well as their effectiveness in redressing the situation as soon as possible.

In all cases of exceedance of limit values set by the EU ambient air quality directive, member states are required to adopt air quality plans containing measures that ensure that the exceedance period is kept as short as possible.

Environmental groups welcomed the Commission’s action. Margherita Tolotto, air quality policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, said: “Today’s announcement should surprise no one, the countries being sent to court have had too many final warnings.”

However, she questioned why some governments but not others have been sent to court and said that: “Citizens deserve to know what is being done to protect them from polluted air. The process behind these infringement actions should be far more transparent.”

Regarding NO2, there are currently thirteen infringement cases pending against Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, France, Spain, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

Moreover, there are sixteen infringement cases for PM10 pending against Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Two of these countries, Bulgaria and Poland, have already been found in breach of the PM10 limits in judgements by the ECJ on 5 April 2017 and 22 February 2018, respectively.

To help member states fight air pollution and improve air quality, the Commission has published a Communication entitled “A Europe that protects: Clean air for all”, which outlines a number of available measures as well as sources of EU funding.

Christer Ågren

Press release by the European Commission, 17 May 2018
Press release by the EEB, 17 May 2018
Commission Communication “A Europe that protects: Clean air for all”
Commission Factsheet “Clean air for all”



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