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'Hard-won victory' - European Parliament opens EU courts to environmental defenders




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In a big win for all environmental defenders, the EU Parliament has officially opened the EU courts to environmental challenges. It follows a decade-long legal battle led by ClientEarth for more access to justice for people and NGOs.

In a final vote, a sweeping majority of MEPs agreed to amend EU access to justice law the Aarhus Regulation, enabling NGOs and individuals to challenge many more EU decisions that break environmental law than was previously possible under EU law.

Until now, only NGOs could use the Aarhus Regulation, and only to challenge a very limited number of EU decisions – such as some Commission authorisations to use chemicals.

These restrictions have now been removed, meaning that decisions including authorisations for harmful pesticides, the limitation of emissions for diesel vehicles or the setting of fishing limits are now open to public scrutiny and challenge.

ClientEarth environmental democracy lawyer Anne Friel said:

“This is an historic moment that gives civil society a voice in the EU courts to protect the environment. Members of the public will now be able to hold EU institutions to account on their various obligations to fight climate change and biodiversity loss. It is an extra tool that will be crucial to enforce environmental laws and ensure EU decisions do not contradict the EU Green Deal.”

The development follows a prolonged fight for more access to justice at EU level. In 2008, ClientEarth filed a complaint with the UN against the EU for its failure to comply with the Aarhus Convention, an international environmental treaty that grants access to justice rights to the public. In 2017, the UN body responsible for overseeing compliance with the Convention finally found the EU to be in breach of its international law obligations.


This reform addresses the main findings of non-compliance of the Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee in that case but the battle continues.

Friel added: “This has been a hard-won victory and a legal marathon. It was only possible because the Aarhus Convention enables members of the public to hold institutions to account.”

Lawyers regret, however, that EU legislators carved out an exception for EU State aid decisions – which still cannot be challenged under the Aarhus Regulation.

Instead, the Commission has committed to prepare a study by 2022 and, “if appropriate”, related proposals by 2023. It means that until then governments can still dole out colossal sums to companies from the public purse – to fossil fuel companies, for example – without any way for the public to challenge it at EU level (where those decisions are approved).

Parties to the Aarhus Convention will gather at the upcoming Meeting of the Parties from 18-21- October 2021. At the meeting, the EU is intending to postpone the endorsement of more recent findings of the Aarhus Compliance Committee that highlight the lack of access to justice of EU State aid decisions. This would break from the established practice that all Parties accept the ACCC’s findings.

Friel said: “Unfortunately, the EU is still undermining the Convention by refusing to endorse the findings against it on state aid. By trying to obtain special treatment, the EU erodes the trust and cooperation between the parties and weakens the foundations of this international treaty. We call on the EU to lead by example and fulfil its own commitment to the rule of law.”

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