EC agrees rules on moving toxic waste: New measures are designed to cut Community telephone prices and ratify the Basle Convention, curbing transport of pollutants

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RULES to limit the transport of toxic waste across European Community borders and into the Third World and Eastern Europe were agreed by EC environment ministers yesterday after more than 12 months of difficult negotiations.

Indecision between the 12 member states has until now stopped the EC from ratifying the Basle Convention governing the international movement of toxic waste, which came into force five months ago. Yesterday's agreement, which should take effect in 1994, will mean a general ban on the export of toxic waste to non-EC countries and tough controls on toxic-waste trade between EC countries. The deal has been held up over an argument about whether EC single-market rules imply that there should be a free trade in waste between EC members, as in any other commodity, after 1993.

France, often the destination for German waste, had, with British support, championed the cause of self-sufficiency. The French said that environmental concerns overrode any economic or commercial justifications.

The European Commission, which drafted the initial proposals, had complained that unilateral bans could too easily be challenged by the European Court and that controls should therefore be imposed only after EC-wide consultation. This view was challenged by the court itself in July. Asked to rule on the case of a Belgian village that had blocked the dumping of Dutch waste, the court finding made clear that waste was not 'commercial goods' in that its circulation could be banned, provided the prohibition was not discriminatory.

This was interpreted as reinforcing the principle that waste should be processed where it is produced, with the implication that EC states had a right to ban waste from elsewhere.

The smaller EC states have long complained that this is not always commercially possible for them. One of the compromises struck to secure yesterday's deal was an agreement that the rules banning intra-EC trade in waste would be made more flexible for the smaller states, especially the Benelux countries. In case of dispute, a conciliation procedure has been agreed. It is still not entirely clear how the rules will be made to work.

Announcing the deal, a priority for the British presidency, Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, said only that it would 'in principle allow bans on waste imports'.

Officials, in an attempt to shed more light, said that national bans would 'have to be in conformity with EC treaty rules' which suggests they could yet be subject to legal challenges. The Twelve have also agreed a Belgian proposal that the progress of hazardous waste from its departure point though the EC only could be documented and checked despite single-market rules which, in theory, would outlaw such regulation.

The export of European toxic waste for disposal in the Third World, a practice sharply criticised by the environmental lobbies, will be prohibited under the new rules. It will, however, be possible to export for recycling. Arguments that this possibility will be abused were countered by EC diplomats yesterday who said the Basle Convention would ensure such abuses did not happen.