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Juncker wants a Europe that protects, well this is his chance

Submitted by on 09 May 2018 – 14:16

President Juncker likes to talk about ‘a Europe that protects’, but when it comes to air pollution we seem to be suffering from ‘a Europe that’s small on the big things’. Margherita Tolotto, Policy Officer for Air and Noise at the European Environment Bureau says now is the time to act

Europe is facing an air pollution crisis on a continental scale. EU air quality limits are being breached in more than 130 cities in 23 countries. Nearly eight out of ten cities, which have been currently monitored, exceed the World Health Organisation’s recommended guidelines.

Respiratory diseases, cancers, and a long list of other unpleasant conditions are linked to breathing polluted air, and the most vulnerable in society – the young and elderly – are the most at risk.

If there was ever an opportunity for the EU to step up and protect, then this is it.

And if there was ever a ‘big thing’ where the EU should act, then we’ve found that too.

But the story of the Juncker Commission’s action to tackle toxic air has so far been one of delays and disappointment.

In February last year we welcomed the final warnings given to Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain for persistently breaching EU air quality limits.

They had a lot to answer for. Air quality standards for fine particles and nitrogen dioxide have been breached by these countries for between 8 and 13 years. The time for excuses ended years ago.

Or apparently not.

In January this year, ministers from nine countries were summoned to Brussels to explain their failure to act.  At the time, we welcomed this extraordinary and unprecedented ‘toxic bloc’ meeting as a chance to put air pollution at the top of the political agenda and prove to citizens that the EU cared about this issue.

The ministers were given an ultimatum asking them to write to the Commission before March, detailing “credible, timely and effective measures” for improving air quality, or face charges.

That deadline has come past. And an announcement was expected at the end of April.

But instead, a Commission spokesperson revealed that under President Juncker’s instructions, the infringement announcement would be delayed again. We don’t know for how long.

While the causes and types of air pollution, and the challenges faced by those nine countries are varied and complex, the extent of the breaches is shocking.


Everyone in Europe has the same right to clean and healthy air. Member states signed off on laws to protect us from air pollution, but it is the Commission’s responsibility to enforce them. Yet the Commission’s inaction has created a vicious cycle whereby national governments no longer fear being sanctioned for breaking the law.

Action to bring European air into line with EU air quality rules cannot come quickly enough as we measure the impact of failure in grim statistics, like numbers of asthma attacks, new cases of chronic bronchitis or months or years of life expectancy lost.

European governments have been constantly failing to deliver on air quality for several decades. Now is the time to act.

EEB members and engaged citizens all over Europe have used domestic courts to defend their right to clean air. Judges have consistently looked at the (European) law, considered our arguments, and ruled in our favour. These judgments have forced action across the continent. People everywhere know, when all else fails, legal action works.

Yet citizen-led action is clearly not enough, especially when local groups are denied access to justice. People everywhere need the Commission to step in to ensure that laws designed to protect are properly implemented – regardless of whether or not local groups have the resources and opportunity to fight for their rights in the courts.

We have assessed the publicly available plans submitted by the nine governments to the EU. None can be considered “credible, timely and effective” enough to meet the scale of this problem.

If President Juncker truly believes in a Europe that protects, then all nine governments must now be sent to court.

There have been too many final warnings and too many failed last chances.