EU citizens should soon be enjoying legally guaranteed rights to access environmental information held by public authorities, to participate in environmental decision-making and to take violations of environmental law to court. This will represent a milestone in strengthening democracy in environmental policy-making and environmental protection, and improve the effectiveness of environmental policies. This will come about as a result of aligning legislation at EU level and in EU Member States with the provisions of the 1998 Århus Convention. The European Commission has just adopted three legislative proposals towards full application of the Convention, launching the final step in implementing its provisions into EU law. These proposals should, in practice, act as the catalyst for important changes in the behaviour of public authorities at all levels by enabling citizens and associations to assume responsibility for the environment.
Margot Wallström, Commissioner for the Environment, said: “Empowering people to protect their environment is a cornerstone of effective policymaking. Citizens must be given the right to know how good or bad the state of the environment is and to participate in decision-making that will affect their health and quality of life. A well-informed and active public means more effective environmental legislation and better enforcement of environmental policies. Citizens will now be able to act as environmental watchdogs!"
The Commission has made the following three proposals:
Proposal for a Regulation on application of the Århus principles to the EU institutions and bodies
When the EU adopts this Regulation, it will become the first international organisation to apply a comprehensive set of rules granting public access to environmental information, citizens' participation in environmental decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.
The proposed Regulation will strengthen citizens' environmental rights at EU level by giving them access to environmental information such as on the state of the environment and the environmental media, including water, air, soil, land, and on policies, plans and programmes related to the environment. EU institutions and bodies will be obliged to make this information available on the Internet or via similar systems and respond to requests from citizens and environmental organisations within one month (exceptionally two months).
The proposal is based on EC Regulation 1049/2001 on access to documents of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission, which should to be extended to all EU institutions and bodies.
With regard to public participation, all EU institutions and bodies will have to identify the public likely to be affected by future plans and programmes relating to the environment, and invite them, at an early stage, to participate in the decision-making process and submit their comments and views. The EU institutions and bodies will also have to inform the public of the final decision and the underlying reasons, in particular the outcome of the participation process and how the views expressed have been taken into account.
Lastly, on access to justice, the proposed Regulation enables European NGOs to require the review of decisions by EU institutions and bodies which they consider do not comply with environmental legislation. This review will first have to be done by the EU institution itself and, if the matter is not resolved, the European Court of Justice may be addressed.
Proposal for a Directive on access to justice on environmental matters
One of the principles of the Århus Convention is to enable the public to assume responsibility for the environment by granting them the right to bring violations of environmental law before a court. This proposal will allow citizens as well as their organisations to play their part in the enforcement of environmental law. It makes basic common provisions for access to justice in all EU Member States, so that citizens will be able to challenge actions or omissions by those public authorities which infringe environmental law. In accordance with the subsidiarity principle, the European Commission's proposal leaves it to the Member States to determine the details of implementing the provisions of this Directive into national law.
Proposal for a Decision on conclusion by the EU of the Århus Convention
The European Commission has also made a proposal for a Council Decision to enable the European Union to ratify and become a Party to the Århus Convention. This will allow the European Union to live up to the commitment it made when it signed the Convention in 1998.
The “Århus Convention” is an international agreement which lays down a set of basic rules to promote citizens' involvement in environmental matters and improve enforcement of environmental law. It grants the public access to environmental information, provides for participation in environmental decision-making, and allows the public to seek judicial redress when environmental law is infringed, including breaches of the two previous rights.
The Convention was negotiated among the countries of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). It was adopted on 25 June 1998 at a pan-European conference of environment ministers in the Danish city of Århus hence the name. All EU governments signed up to it, as did the European Union. The Convention entered into force on 30 October 2001.
The negotiations had involved both governments and non-governmental organizations and lasted two years. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the agreement as “the most ambitious venture in environmental democracy undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations.”
By signing the Århus Convention in 1998, the EU committed itself to transposing it into EU law. Two Directives concerning access to environmental information (Directive 2003/4/EC) and public participation in environmental decision-making (Directive 2003/35/EC) in EU Member States were adopted earlier in 2003.
These two Directives provide for an EU-wide harmonised framework for public access to environmental information and public participation in environmental decision-making, which is fully in line with the ambitious standards of the Århus Convention. Member States are required to introduce the provisions of these two Directives into their national legal systems by 2005 at the latest.
The "legislative package" adopted by the Commission today covers those aspects of the Århus Convention that are not dealt with by the two aforementioned Directives or by earlier relevant legislation.