2 January 2018
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has issued an opinion on the Commission’s Communication on Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. The Opinion makes a number of strong recommendations to the EU institutions and the Member States regarding the implementation of the access to justice pillar of the Aarhus Convention.
Of note, the EESC pledges its commitment to the Aarhus Convention, and recognises that there are a number of problems connected to its implementation by the EU and its Member States.
With regard to the Member States, while the EESC welcomes the Commission’s Communication published in April 2017, it maintains that EU legislation is necessary to achieve consistency across the EU. It lands the blame squarely at the feet of the Member States for frustrating the Commission’s past efforts to propose a directive on access to justice, and calls on them to remove obstacles in the future. However, in the absence of such legislation, the EESC puts forward the following recommendations regarding the Communication.
The EESC also uses this opportunity to make recommendations regarding the endorsement and implementation of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee’s findings that the EU is in breach of Articles 9(3) and (4) of the Aarhus Convention, owing the lack of effective administrative and/or judicial review mechanisms at EU level. In this respect, the EESC calls for the EU to engage in a constructive manner with environmental NGOs and civil society more broadly in order to prioritise a broad and ambitious approach to improving EU implementation of the Aarhus Convention, as a matter of urgency. Significantly, the opinion recognises the application of the Aarhus Convention to all EU institutions, and does not consider the EU’s declaration when it ratified the Convention to absolve it of its obligations in respect of access to justice. The EESC also refers to the Council decision to “take note” of the findings, rather than endorsing them, at the 6th Meeting of the Parties in September 2017, and “highlights a contradiction in the EU seeking to not endorse the findings of the ACCC while reiterating support for the Convention.”
The EESC is an advisory body made up of organisations representing three pillars of EU society, employers, workers and civil society organisations. The opinions, which are not legally binding, must be agreed by all three categories of representatives. Therefore, the fact that the opinion contains such strong recommendations on access to justice, both at national and EU levels, is a significant achievement and shows broad support for the Aarhus Convention. The EESC must now use this opinion to hold the EU institutions to account.
Access to Justice is a fundamental means through which citizens and NGOs can support the implementation and enforcement of laws and policies to protect the environment. The goal of this ATOJ-EARL project is to achieve “Access to Justice for a Greener Europe”. It strives to enhance access to justice in environmental matters by providing information, training and support for the judiciary, public authorities and lawyers of eight European member states. ClientEarth and Justice and Environment are implementing this project with the financial support of the European Commission’s LIFE instrument.