Environment: UK faces action for failing to implement EU rules

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The Independent Online
While new laws are passed by Europe, Britain and other EU nations have been caught out failing to implement the existing ones. The UK has been warned that it faces prosecution in the European Court and possible fines for its shortcomings, writes Katherine Butler.

Slamming governments for paying lip-service to the environment yesterday the European Commission exposed 10 member states, including Britain, for infringement of the bloc's flagship environmental law.

The 15 governments have had more than five years ago to implement a directive which aims to protect endangered are rare natural habitats - the continent's wildlife "jewels in the crown". Their failure to do so leaves the 10 facing referral to the European Court unless they take action within weeks.

The Commission also took the unusual step of publicly announcing that it is opening legal proceedings against Britain and 12 other member states for failure to implement legislation on waste signed up to six years ago.

This announcement took British officials by surprise, as the usual procedure is for Brussels to first write to the member state reminding it of its obligations under the European Union treaty and to open proceedings only when this fails.

But the Commission is clearly impatient with foot dragging by governments who although boastful on the world stage of their commitment to meeting the great environmental challenges such as climate change, systematically fail to apply their own rules.

Environment ministers who make the law were obviously coming to Brussels "for a free lunch" rather than because they had any commitment to the environment, Peter Jorgensen a Commission spokesman said.

"There is clearly something wrong with the willingness of member states to implement decisions they themselves have taken," said Mr Jorgensen, citing a long list of environmental legislation where court proceedings are now pending.

Yesterday's announcements come in an attempt to shame the accused into action particularly on endangered habitats. Britain's transgression, according to the Commission, is its failure to submit a complete national list of the sites to be included in an EU habitats network.

Other nations, especially France and Germany, have a worse record on implementing the habitats directive.

Natural woodlands or sand dune systems designated by governments are given legal protection, for example, against over-use by farmers. Habitats of endangered plant and animal species such as otters or certain orchids, are also supposed to be covered by the directive.

British officials said the Government's decision to hold public consultations on the sites to be designated for special protection had slowed the process.

So far, 255 British sites covering, for example, the River Derwent in Cumbria, the Devils Dyke semi-natural grassland in Cambridgeshire and the submerged sea caves at Rathlin Island, Co Antrim, have been notified to the Commission.

A further list is expected to be ready by the end of the year, but the Commission says this rate of progress is too slow.