Fears grow that Brussels may quit green crusade

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A FLURRY of recent press reports have said the European Community might soon start pulling out of protecting the European environment. Green affairs would be tossed out of Brussels and back down to the individual member states, to show - in the wake of the Danish 'no' to the Maastricht treaty - that the Community was serious about subsidiarity.

A big 'repatriation' of European environmental laws on birds, beaches and tap-water may seem an appropriate gesture now. But it would probably cause much more unpopularity and argument than it could ever be worth.

The ball started rolling last month with some off-the-cuff remarks by the European Commission's president, Jacques Delors. Britain's Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, and the EC competition commissioner, Leon Brittan, took up the theme.

Environmentalists across Europe were horrified at such talk; the EC's ahead-of-their-time green directives had become one of their greatest weapons for raising awareness and improving standards. Britain's water companies, for instance, are being forced to spend billions of pounds on improving treatment of drinking water in order for Britain to comply, belatedly, with water-quality directives well over a decade after they became law.

One reason why a repeal of such directives is not on the cards is that there is no precedent. Whenever they have been repealed they have been replaced with alternative - usually tougher - laws.

Any proposal to repeal a directive would have to come from the Commission itself - and Mr Delors would face strong opposition from the Brussels civil servants who cover the environment.

The Commission would have to consult the European parliament - which may well oppose it - and put it before the environment ministers of member states for approval. Unanimity would be required among the 12 ministers to accept the repeal, and that would probably not be forthcoming.

A country that had spent billions of pounds complying with a green directive would not wish to see a less environmentally assiduous nation, such as Italy, suddenly let off the hook.

Ministers backing a repeal would argue they were defending democracy and promoting subsidiarity, but they would be vulnerable to accusations from green groups that they were letting down the environment.

Ken Collins, Strathclyde East MEP and chairman of the European parliament's environment committee, said: 'EC environmental laws help to ensure that industry and consumers can have similar standards and face similar costs across Europe. Repealing them will dig holes all over the level playing-field.'

Last week Britain's Environment Secretary, Michael Howard, was non-committal about Britain's stance on repatriating EC environmental law. He is president, for the next six months, of the group of 12 EC 'green' ministers.

There may, however, be repeals of parts of environmental directives that set standards which no nation can meet. And one change that probably will take place is a slowdown in the pace at which the commission and the Council of Ministers churn out new environmental laws. 'The Council has become something of a legislative sausage-machine,' said Mr Howard. 'It needs to examine whether existing measures are being implemented properly.'