Åarhus ruling ‘sad day for democracy’

The right of individuals and NGOs to challenge environmental decisions has been thrown into doubt by a controversial ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The Åarhus Convention of 1998 is a United Nations agreement among European states that gives people and associations the right to environmental information, participation in decision-making on environmental matters, and the right to challenge decisions in courts. It was enshrined in EU law through a regulation in 2005, but the scope of that regulation has become the subject of a complicated legal battle.
 
In 2008, T&E’s Dutch member Natuur en Milieu and the European office of the Pesticides Action Network took legal action after the Commission refused to review pesticide residue limits in food. In its 2012 judgement, the ECJ sided with Natuur en Milieu and PAN Europe, saying the EU’s regulation that implements the Åarhus Convention was incompatible with the convention itself. But the Commission appealed, and on 13 January the ECJ supported the appeal.
 
PAN Europe described the decision as ‘a sad day for democracy in Europe’, while the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said it would complain to the Åarhus compliance committee that the EU’s legislation gives ‘very limited scope’ for justice on environmental issues. The EEB said the decision, regardless of the legal details, amounted to ‘a serious democratic deficit in the EU institutions’.
 
A number of European countries, notably the Netherlands, grant NGOs the right to make legal challenges against environmental legislation. The NGO ClientEarth said the ECJ’s ruling was ‘a missed opportunity’ to make EU legislation comply with the broad principles of the Åarhus Convention.