European Court of Justice stymies Dutch environmental zeal

Publish date: July 6, 2007

BRUSSELS – The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the Netherlands – an aggressive comer in the battle on climate change – cannot limit fine particle emissions standards for diesel cars and light vans to levels that are lower than other European Union (EU) countries.

The Netherlands has of late been a front-runner in environmental protection, taking several initiatives that other countries are only still discussing and unilaterally legislating them into practice.

The progressive can-do attitude of the Dutch, however, has rubbed other EU countries the wrong way. The ECJ ruling handed down late last month threatens to limit the scope of the Netherlands’ environmental progressiveness.

Thorough standards
In 2005, the Dutch government decided to ban new diesel vehicles emitting more than 5 milligrams per kilometre (mg/km) of particulate emissions, which took effect January 1st, 2007. The current EU-wide limit for such emissions are 25 mg/km, meaning the Dutch proposal is a significant improvement on diesel emission standards.

But the European Commission (EC) has the right, under article 94 of the EU Treaty, to deny such an initiative from the Dutch as it falls under common market rules. There is, however an “environmental clause” in Article 95 of the EU Treaty, which gives Member States the right to establish environmental protection over internal market regulation to protect the health of the population.

The EC contested some of the evidence in the Dutch argument, and thus argued that there is no specific reason why the Netherlands in particular needs stricter standards. It presented a recent Dutch study that showed that the amount of particular matter in the Netherlands is 10 to 15 percent lower than the government claimed.

The Dutch government was not satisfied with the Commission ruling, and went to the ECJ to appeal the decision. The ECJ ruled that the Netherlands had not been able to refute EC’s assertion that the Netherlands did not have an especially acute situation that would allow it protection under article 95.

Media stunt?
Some analysts argue that the litigation brought by the Netherlands to the ECJ was merely a Dutch government publicity stunt born of an increasing anti-EU sentiment in Dutch society. The tendency first became visible when the Dutch voted against the EU Constitution in 2005, showing a distinct decrease in support for the EU among the Dutch.

By blaming the EU for a failed emissions policy, it is easier for the Dutch to argue that the EU works against its Member States. Nevertheless, the Netherlands has trotted out some of the most progressive environmental policies on air pollution in the EU.

New EU legislation
The EU has already adopted the Euro VI emission standards for smaller vehicles, and is currently working to expand these standards to trucks and heavy vehicles. This legislative framework is set out to reduce nitric oxide and other sources of air pollution from cars.

When implemented, the framework will lead to stricter emissions standards for vehicles in all EU Member States. Still, it is important that EU countries continue to launch these kinds of initiatives to provoke reactions from other Member States and achieve progress.

Facts on the EU Treaty and the ECJ:
Article 94 of the EU Treaty gives EU Institutions the right to sanction national laws affecting the efficiency of the common market;

Article 95 gives Member States the right to deviate from the common market if it has specific national needs, as with the protection of the environment;

The European Court of Justice is located in Luxembourg, and consists of 27 Judges, one from each EU Member State;

ECJ decisions prevail over national law when the ruling is based on EU competencies;

EU Member States have the obligation to enforce ECJ decisions.

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