The European Union is breaching the law by stopping individuals and campaign groups taking environmental cases to court.
This is the finding of the UN committee charged with guaranteeing citizen’s access to information and justice in environmental matters in the EU and beyond.
In 2008, ClientEarth brought a case against the EU for blocking court access. The Commission, representing the EU, consistently responded with tired arguments that had already been dismissed by the UN committee, called the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee, after the convention they enforce.
ClientEarth senior lawyer Anaïs Berthier said:
“This is a huge win for EU democracy. The EU signed a UN convention in 1998, guaranteeing people the information and court access they need to enforce environmental law. But no individual or NGO has ever been allowed to challenge the EU institutions before the Court of Justice. This is stark proof of the EU’s persistent democratic deficit.”
“This ruling piles the pressure on the Commission to make sure people have access to justice to enforce environmental laws, as they committed to almost 20 years ago. Now, the EU must turn promises into action. This is the best way to protect people and the planet.”
The EU’s narrow and selective interpretation of the Aarhus Convention, meaning that NGOs and citizens have no legal standing to go before the ECJ, has failed European citizens. It shouldn’t be considered abnormal for people to have access to the courts in the EU.
The decisions of the EU’s institutions have a huge impact on everyday life, from the state of the air we breathe to the chemicals allowed in our food, household products and the toys our children play with. These institutions must be accountable to the people they serve.
EU, Aarhus and access to justice: correcting the democratic deficit
Now, the Commission must follow the Committee’s recommendations and address this democratic deficit.
In September, countries that have signed up to the Aarhus Convention – including the EU – will meet and discuss adopting the findings of the Aarhus Committee. If the EU was to disagree here, not only would it be the first time this has ever happened, but it would send a dangerous signal to its citizens, to the member states and to the rest of the world that the EU has a highly selective approach when it comes to the rule of law.
At a time when alarming numbers of Europeans are questioning the value and legitimacy of the Union itself, it is essential for EU leaders to demonstrate their commitment to the democratic values of the EU.
We hope the Commission will see this decision not as a threat, but as an opportunity to truly make the EU accountable and to bridge the gap between the EU institutions and the people.