Hurd resisted on EC water laws

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The Department of the Environment is fighting Whitehall pressure to repeal European directives that lay down minimum standards for British drinking and bathing water.

The directives, identified with the former European environment commissioner Carlo Ripa di Meana, fall into one of the areas where the Government wants to restrict Commission power.

Pressure for a review of the directives has come from Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who believes that water standards should not be dictated by Brussels. As part of Britain's presidency of the European Community, Mr Hurd has asked government departments to examine areas in which the Commission's powers should be restrained.

With continuing political difficulties over Maastricht, ministers are keen to show Conservative backbenchers that they are taking firm action to ensure that the EC devolves more decision-taking to national level.

Mr Hurd believes there is some scope for cross-border EC environment policy, for example on pollution, but he has been angered before by the Commission's desire to take a more active role in British environment policy. When Mr Ripa di Meana called for a halt to some road-building projects, including the M3 extension, in 1991, Mr Hurd accused him of meddling in the 'nooks and crannies' of British life.

Although Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, is regarded as a Eurosceptic, his department is cautioning against a move on the directives. It argues that a repeal would present major technical problems because the directives have been enshrined in British legislation.

Britain has one of the highest proportions of dirty beaches in Europe, with nearly a quarter failing to meet EC standards on pollution. Only Germany has a higher percentage - partly explained by the former East Germany being in the figures.

The water quality and bathing directives came into force in 1985, but in Britain the standards will not be met until at least 1995.

Ministerial sources said last week that the problem had not been resolved and could figure at the Edinburgh European Council meeting at the end of the year. However, the Foreign Office is being urged to concentrate on closer scrutiny of directives still in the pipeline, or those implemented in Britain by regulation rather than by statute.

Officals at the FO have produced a list of possible directives for repeal, but a decision on which ones to single out will be taken by the Cabinet committee on defence and overseas policy, chaired by the Prime Minister.

Many of the candidates are described as arcane, technical or uncontroversial.