Court rules EU must declare breaches of environmental law
In a landmark ruling the Court of Justice of the EU yesterday banned the European Commission from keeping information regarding hazardous waste and water quality confidential.
The Commission currently withholds studies that detail whether EU countries are properly implementing environmental laws. The potential rule-breaking includes breaches of regulations surrounding drinking water and bathing water quality.
Environmental legal firm ClientEarth challenged this policy of confidentiality, bringing a case to the General Court in 2013. The activist lawyers claimed the Aarhus Convention – a treaty signed by EU nations in 1998 – means the information should be publicly available.
The Court ruled in favour of the Commission, but ClientEarth challenged the decision in a court case heard by the Court of Justice. The court yesterday rejected the Commission’s argument – and the General Court’s previous ruling – decreeing the studies should not automatically be kept private.
Studies that have incurred no further investigation by the Commission will now have to be made public, the court said.
ClientEarth lawyer Anaïs Berthier said the court’s decision was a “huge leap” forward in environmental protection. “This ruling limits the presumption of confidentiality that the Commission and the General Court wanted to stretch even further,” she said. “It is enormously positive for EU transparency and openness, and essential to protect people and the planet.”
However, the ruling does not apply to studies that have led to infringement proceedings by the Commission. Berthier said this means the worst law-breaking by EU governments risks being kept confidential, as infringement proceedings are not open to the press or public.
“Negotiations can go on for years behind closed doors, denying people the right to hold governments to account when they break environmental laws,” she said.