Press release: 22 April 2021

European Parliament vote takes EU closer to compliance with international access to justice law

Environmental lawyers at NGO ClientEarth have welcomed the result of a European Parliament vote, saying it brings the EU a step closer to compliance with international environmental treaty the Aarhus Convention.

With the vote, members of the European Parliament’s environment committee agreed to amend EU access to justice law the Aarhus regulation.

This would reduce barriers to challenging environmental wrongdoings in EU courts.

Currently, NGOs and members of the public have very limited access to EU courts to challenge unlawful decisions, like the authorisation of 'probably carcinogenic' glyphosate or the granting of immense fossil fuel subsidies.

This led the UN committee overseeing compliance with the Aarhus Convention to announce in 2017 that the EU was in breach of its obligations on access to justice.

But ClientEarth’s lawyers say that today's vote could help address some of the barriers that prevent people and NGOs holding EU institutions to account in court.

ClientEarth environmental democracy lawyer Anne Friel said: “Today’s vote tackles some of the main barriers to access to justice identified by the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee as breaking international law.

“The Parliament Committee has undoubtedly improved the Commission's original proposal. This version would ensure that all administrative decisions taken by the EU institutions can be challenged if they break environmental laws.

“For example, decisions approving harmful pesticides, setting dangerously high fishing limits or letting cars exceed emission limits would become challengeable. Importantly, so would Commission decisions on State aid that breaks environmental law. This is a huge deal.

“The report also recognises for the first time that the Aarhus Regulation must give individuals as well as NGOs the right to challenge unlawful EU decisions in court - something that the Council and the Commission have so far completely ignored. There is still a lot of room for improvement on this point, but this marks the start of a very important conversation in the EU.

“We are now looking to the Council to engage in constructive effort during the trilogue negotiations with the other EU institutions to empower the public to protect the environment. This is essential to the delivery of the EU Green Deal."

The report, which should be formally approved tomorrow, will then be subject to a plenary vote in the European Parliament, scheduled for 17 May, with trilogues expected to start soon after.


Notes to editors:

A 20-year journey towards access to justice – timeline

1998: The EU and more than 40 other parties sign the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, usually known as the Aarhus Convention.

2005: The Convention is ratified by the EU.

2006: The EU adopts the Aarhus Regulation to implement the access to justice provisions of the Aarhus Convention (article 9(3)) into EU law. Since individuals and NGOs do not have direct access to the Court of Justice of the EU to protect the environment, the Aarhus Regulation creates an ‘internal review’ mechanism allowing certain environmental NGOs to ask EU institutions to review their own decisions, with a right of appeal to the EU courts. The current internal review mechanism does not work because it is available for a very limited number of EU acts only (so far, certain chemicals and GMO decisions).

2008: ClientEarth brings this matter before the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC)

2017: the ACCC finds the EU to be in violation of the access to justice provisions of the Convention. The EU refuses to endorse the findings of the Committee, leading to strong opposition from certain State Parties, NGOs and other institutional actors.

2018: The Council of the EU requests the Commission to carry out a study to explore ways to comply with the Convention and the findings of the ACCC and, in view of the conclusion of the study, to table a legislative proposal to revise the Aarhus Regulation.

October 2019: the Commission published the study(carried out by consultants) and a report, concluding that the only option was to amend the Aarhus Regulation (see our analysis here).

October 2020: the Commission releases a legislative proposal to amend the Aarhus regulation (see our analysis here) and asks the ACCC to issue advice on whether it would bring the EU into compliance with the Convention

November 2020: The ACCC holds a hearing with the European Commission and the communicant (ClientEarth) in preparation of its advice to the EU as to whether the legislative proposal is adequate to bring the EU into compliance with the Convention

December 2020: Rather than awaiting the ACCC advice, the Council adopts a common position on the legislative proposal (see our press release here)

February 2021:  The ACCC adopted its advice stating that the legislative proposal, in its current form, is insufficient to ensure the EU’s compliance with the Convention. In parallel, it publishes its draft findings on communication ACCC/C/2015/128 (European Union) finding that the EU needs to ensure access to justice for the EU Commission’s state aid decisions.

March 2021: The ACCC publishes its final findings on communication ACCC/C/2015/128 and confirms that access to justice in relation to the Commission’s state aid decisions must be ensured.

About ClientEarth

ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.