EU seeks power to jail polluters under new environmental laws

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The Independent Online

Releasing toxic chemicals, dumping hazardous waste and other serious "green crimes" would be punished by up to 10 years in prison and a €1.5m fine anywhere in Europe, under a plan to be launched tomorrow.

The plan is likely to provoke opposition from several national capitals - including London - because some governments jealously defend their right to determine tariffs for criminal offences.

But Franco Frattini, European commissioner for justice and home affairs, believes that the public is so concerned about damage to the environment that the measure will be popular across the continent.

His proposal lists nine sets of offences which would be recognised in all 27 EU member states, with possible punishment ranging from one to 10 years' imprisonment. These include illegal treatment or shipment of waste, discharge of dangerous substances into the air, soil or ground or unlawful possession of protected wild plants and animals. Other crimes would include causing drastic deterioration of a protected habitat and unlawful trade in ozone-depleting substances.

Maximum penalties for the most serious offences would include jail sentences or fines of at least €1.5m (£900,000). These would include "crimes that have resulted in death or serious injury of a person or a substantial damage to air, soil, water, animal or plants, or when the offence has been committed by a criminal organisation".

In introducing the legislation now, Mr Frattini and the environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, have chosen their moment well. As The Independent's Campaign Against Waste has shown, there is mounting concern across Europe over the state of the environment - from climate change and greenhouse gas emissions to wasteful packaging of consumer goods.

One official said: "I am 100 per cent confident that we will get the support of EU citizens, despite the worries of member states that want to hold on to individual sovereignty." The proposal argues: "Criminal sanctions are not in force in all member states for all serious environmental offences even though only criminal penalties will have a sufficiently dissuasive effect."

If adopted this would be only the second time in the EU's legal history that national governments would give up the full sovereign right to decide what constitutes a crime and what the punishment should be. The first move was triggered by a landmark ruling on environmental crimes by the European Court of Justice in September 2005, which gave Brussels a new competence over criminal laws across the EU. The court stated that it was up to the Commission to decide on penal measures in order to make community legislation effective.

This latest proposal stirred immediate debate. Chris Davies, environment spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament said: "I don't think we should support cheats. What the commission is trying to do is ensure that not only do we meet the object of legislation, which is to protect the environment, but that we have a level playing field for British business which, by and large, works within a good UK regulatory system."

But Timothy Kirkhope, leader of the Conservative MEPs, said the Commission's proposals were worrying because they could eventually result in other legislation being targeted for EU-wide criminalisation.

He argued: "This appears to be a worrying erosion of British sovereignty. Notwithstanding our support for environmental protection, this is a blow to Britain's ability to decide things for ourselves. I fear the Commission sees this as an opportunity to extend its powers and start interfering in the criminal law of member states."

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