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Environment: Commission takes Austria to Court over failure to protect water quality on Schwarze Sulm river

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467165079_1280The European Commission is taking Austria to Court for its failure to ensure adequate protection for the Schwarze Sulm river in Steiermark. In the Commission's view, the construction of a proposed power plant would cause a serious deterioration in the quality of the river, which is one of the longest undisturbed rivers in the region.

The Commission is of the view that the regional authority failed to respect the water quality requirements of the Water Framework Directive when it authorised the hydropower project in 2007. Indeed, the permit in question was revoked by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Environment in 2009, but Austria's constitutional court dismissed that revocation on purely formal grounds in 2012. The permit therefore came back into force and can no longer be challenged before a national court. This led the Commission to open infringement proceedings in 2013, on the grounds that the permit for the power plant is not in line with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive. As building work now appears to have begun on the project, the Commission is referring the case to the EU Court of Justice, on the recommendation of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik.

Under European legislation, member states must take measures to prevent the status of their water bodies from deteriorating. An exemption from the non-deterioration principle can only be granted if certain requirements are fulfilled, one of which is the demonstration of an overriding public interest. In the Commission's view the authorizing body did not demonstrate the overriding interest of the project, a view confirmed by the assessment of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Environment, which also contested the overriding public interest.

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Austria agreed to review the authorization decision, but in the review procedure the regional authority merely downgraded the water status of the Schwarze Sulm, claiming that an exemption from the non-deterioration principle was no longer necessary. This would be a violation of the Water Framework Directive, as the quality of the Schwarze Sulm was documented as 'high' in the river basin management plan of 2009, and the conditions for changing the status of the river have not been respected.

As the procedure chosen by the regional authority risks setting a negative precedent for similar hydropower projects in Austria, and as the legality of the permit for the hydro power plant on the river Schwarze Sulm can no longer be challenged before a national court, the Commission has decided to take Austria to Court.

Background

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The Water Framework Directive obliges member states to protect and restore all bodies of ground water and surface water (rivers, lakes, canals and coastal water) to achieve 'good status' by 2015 at the latest, meaning that the waters show as few traces of human impact as possible. Under the Directive, member states implement measures to prevent the status of surface water bodies from deteriorating. Exemptions to this requirement can only be granted under the conditions laid down in Article 4(7), one of which is a requirement to demonstrate that the project is of "overriding public interest". While the legislation does contain a degree of flexibility, exemptions are only possible on certain carefully defined grounds.

All practicable steps must be taken to mitigate adverse impacts, and in cases of overriding public interest, the benefits of the modifications must outweigh the benefits to the environment and society of achieving good water status, and it must be impossible for those beneficial objectives to be achieved by other means. Hydropower plants lead to lower water status as they affect the river continuity, which is one of the criteria in the Water Framework Directive for attributing 'high' water status to a river.

More information

More details on water policy
On the April infringement package decisions, see MEMO/14/293
On the general infringement procedure, see
MEMO/12/12
For more information on infringement procedures
Current statistics on infringements in general

Austria

Commission approves €1.6 million Austrian scheme to support public companies active in the pool and wellness sector in the context of the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €1.6 million Austrian scheme to support public companies active in the pool and wellness sector affected by the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictive measures that the Austrian government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus. The measure was approved under the State aid Temporary Framework. Under the scheme, the aid will take the form of direct grants up to €400,000 per beneficiary.

The measure will be open to publicly owned micro, small and medium-sized enterprises active in the Salzburg region and operating a thermal or indoor swimming pool with sauna and/or wellness area. The public support will cover part of the fixed costs incurred by these companies during periods in which they experienced business disruption due to the restrictions in place. The purpose of the measure is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that these companies are facing due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Commission found that the Austrian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the aid (i) will not exceed €1.8m per beneficiary; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021. The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions of the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64490 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Austria's recovery and resilience plan

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The European Commission has adopted a positive assessment of Austria's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €3.5 billion in grants under the Recovery and Resilience Facility. This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Austria's recovery and resilience plan. It will help Austria emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF – at the heart of NextGenerationEU – will provide up to €672.5 billion (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Austrian plan forms part of an unprecedented coordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, the European Commission has decided to give its green light to Austria's recovery and resilience plan. Austria is already a forerunner in the green transition. By placing a special emphasis on investments and reforms that further support our climate objectives, Austria is making a clear statement. We have endorsed your plan because we fully agree that bold action is needed to deliver the green transition.”

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The Commission assessed Austria's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms set out in Austria's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

Securing Austria's green and digital transition  

The Commission's assessment finds that Austria's plan devotes 59% of the plan's total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. This includes reforms to Austria's tax system that target reducing CO2 emissions through incentives for climate friendly technologies, preferential tax rates for low- or zero- emission products, and pricing of CO2 emissions. These measures are flanked by targeted tax relief for companies and households in need. Other measures invest in energy efficiency, renewables, the decarbonisation of industry, biodiversity and circular economy. These investments are accompanied by related reforms, including the overhaul of the support framework for renewables and the phase-out of oil heating systems.

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The Commission's assessment of Austria's plan finds that it devotes 53% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. This includes considerable investments into connectivity, with a particular focus on the widespread deployment of Gigabit-capable networks and the establishment of new symmetrical Gigabit connections in underserved, disadvantaged and rural areas. The plan also includes significant investments in the digitalisation of education, e-government and SMEs.

Reinforcing Austria's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Austria's plan includes an extensive set of mutually reinforcing reforms and investments that contribute to effectively addressing a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Austria. The full-time labour market participation of women is expected to improve due to an increased availability of quality early childcare facilities. The long-recognised challenge related to the gender pension gap is tackled through measures in the plan. The plan addresses some of the social and economic challenges that have emerged or were exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis. Targeted compensation of educational and learning deficits due to the pandemic will combat an increase in inequalities in education outcomes. A series of active labour market policy measures are expected to address the increased need for help to the low-skilled and raise the labour market opportunities of disadvantaged groups.

The plan represents a comprehensive and adequately balanced response to Austria's economic and social situation of Austria, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars referred to in the RRF Regulation.

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis (pictured) said: “We have today endorsed Austria's recovery plan to create a more equitable, digital and sustainable economy. This plan strikes the right balance, with over half of total allocation geared towards climate objectives, such as investments to retire outdated oil and gas heating systems, support emission-free public transport and safeguard biodiversity. The plan will also drive forward digital connectivity in Austria and help foster pupils' digital skills. I especially welcome measures to lend a hand to low-skilled and disadvantaged groups thanks to targeted labour market opportunities, and to make it easier for women to work full-time.”

Supporting flagship investment and reform projects

The Austrian plan proposes projects in seven European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects which address issues that are common to all Member States in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the twin transition. For instance, Austria has proposed to invest €159 million to retire outdated oil and gas heating systems and €543 million on the construction of new train lines and the electrification of existing ones. 

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Austria's recovery and resilience plan contains a truly wide-ranging set of initiatives that will improve the lives of citizens and the competitiveness of businesses in all parts of the country. Measures include the important eco-social tax reform - an excellent example of how taxation policies can help to protect our climate in a way that is socially fair. Together with measures like the phase-out of oil heating systems and the mobility masterplan, Austria will receive a strong boost in its efforts to be climate-neutral by 2040. I also welcome reforms will support health and long-term care, childcare facilities and education.”

The assessment also finds that none of the measures included in the plan significantly harm the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The control systems put in place by Austria are considered adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a Council Implementing Decision to provide €3.5 billion in grants to Austria under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal.

The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €450 million to Austria in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total allocated amount for Austria.

The Commission will authorise further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the Council Implementing Decision, reflecting progress in the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

For More Information

Questions and Answers: European Commission endorses Austria's recovery and resilience plan

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and Answers

Factsheet on Austria's recovery and resilience plan

Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Austria

Annex to the Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Austria

Staff-working document accompanying the proposal for a Council Implementing Decision

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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NextGenerationEU: President von der Leyen in Austria and Slovakia to present Commission assessment of national recovery plans

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Today (21 June), Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) will continue her NextGenerationEU tour in Austria and Slovakia, to personally hand over the result of the Commission's assessment and Recommendation to the Council on the approval of the national recovery and resilience plans in the context of NextGenerationEU. On Monday morning, she will be in Vienna for a meeting with the Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz. Later that day, the President will travel to Bratislava, where she will be received by Eduard Heger, Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic. She will also meet Zuzana Čaputová, President of the Slovak Republic, and Boris Kollár, Speaker of the National Council, together with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. In both countries, the President will visit projects that are or will be funded under the Recovery and Resilience Facility, focused on science and the green transition in Slovakia, and on quantum technology in Austria.

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