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EU lawmakers agreed on a new directive to protect the environment through criminal law

AUTHORS: Irene Chiocchetti, Laure-Lou Tremblay

After months of intense negotiations and several delays, the Parliament and Council managed to find compromises on a text that considerably improves the EU law on environmental crime, stepping up efforts against one of the most profitable and difficult-to-prosecute crimes.  

The 2008/99/EC Directive failed to meet its objectives due to its outdated scope, inconsistent sanctions, and notable enforcement gaps, as stated in the Commission’s proposal. Following a public consultation and a thorough impact assessment, in December 2021 the Commission published a revised version, after more than 10 years of the original Directive being in force. Negotiations for the revision proved to be rather contentious given the sensibility of the topic, and the current differences in national legal jurisdictions, such as minimum and maximum fines and criminal sanctions. The EU law should provide a common baseline of rules for jurisdictions across the EU.  

Council and Parliament had very different degrees of ambition 

It took several months before each legislator defined its own position, and four rounds of trilogues to overcome some crucial issues. On the one side, the European Parliament presented an ambitious and progressive report; on the other hand, the Council pushed for more lax provisions, for example, on sanctions. Although the current version does not overcome all the shortcomings identified in our recommendations, it contains some improvements that will help tackle such crimes.  

Additions to the list of environmental offences, but definition gaps remain  

The legislators agreed to expand the list of environmental offences that can be prosecuted under criminal law to include the import and use of mercury and fluorinated greenhouse gases, the import of invasive species, illegal water withdrawals, illegal logging, and five other crimes. These include Large-scale sale of illegal products; Projects in breach of environmental impact assessment rules; Ship recycling; Polluting vessels; and Habitat destruction. However, other important breaches of EU law, such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing as proposed by the Parliament, are not included. The text does not contain a definition of “environmental damage”, which would have provided a common legal understanding of what it constitutes across the EU. To address this gap, the compromise found provides for the Commission to be tasked with updating the list of infringements on a regular basis. Although it is unclear how often, this should help ensure that new offences causing environmental damage are prosecuted.    

Harmonisation of minimum sanctions  

Sanctions applicable to environmental offenders have been a main disputed issue throughout negotiations, with the Parliament proposing to increase the severity of sanctions and the Council pushing against it, arguing that this would undermine the autonomy of national judicial systems. The agreement now introduces a harmonised sanction system for both natural and legal persons, with minimum standards across the EU, strengthening inter-state judicial cooperation. For legal persons, such as companies, the law imposes stricter penalties ranging from bans on access to public funding, to license revocation, closure, and fines. As to the latter, while transposing the directive, Member States can choose to levy either a percentage of the companies’ annual worldwide turnover (from 3% to 5% maximum) or a fixed fine (between €24 million and €40 million). Regarding crimes committed by natural persons (individuals or company representatives), the new text provides fines, the obligation to reinstate the damaged environment and compensate for the damage caused. For more serious infringements, offenders can be sentenced to prison up to 10 years in cases of intentional offences resulting in death of any person (see the Council’s press release for more details). 

Introduction of a qualified offence clause 

Although there is no explicit mention of “ecocide”, the text introduces a qualified offence clause to cover the most severe crimes that cause irreversible or long-lasting damage to the environment, such as the destruction of an ecosystem or habitat within a protected site or damage to air, soil or water quality. European Parliament shadow rapporteur Marie Toussaint supports this new addition, as it recalls the definition given by the panel of independent experts of the Stop Ecocide Foundation. The Foundation has also publicly welcomed the new reference (see here).  The text specifies that in the case of widespread pollution, forest fires or significant industrial accidents, this offence is equivalent to ecocide as debated at international level

Implementation tools required from Member States  

To improve implementation, Member States are required to provide targeted trainings and resources for judges, prosecutors and police forces to carry out their functions according to the new scope of the directive. The directive also provides the right tools to protect and assist whistleblowers, environmental defenders and persons affected by these crimes. This is a critical issue for the protection of biodiversity – in Romania for example, protected area rangers have been killed trying to protect old-growth forests from logging companies. Regrettably, the law does not extend the competences of the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) to green crimes. Its role is limited to supporting the improvement of cross-border cooperation together with other EU bodies (Eurojust and Interpol).  

Next steps 

The legislators will now have to go through formal adoption. The EP will formally approve the trilogue agreement reached during the plenary, supposedly in February 2024, and then Member States have 24 months to implement the Directive into national law. 

IEEP welcomes the interinstitutional agreement marking another step towards more effective environmental protection, as one of the commitments of the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 in the framework of the European Green Deal. Wildlife crime has a major impact on biodiversity in the EU. The revised EU legal framework will make it possible to prosecute crimes such as the killing of highly endangered lynx and vultures – animals that have been reintroduced into the wild by EU funded conservation programmes to prevent their extinction. This will be supported by the revised EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking 2022 – 2027. We praise the progress in introducing the concept of “ecocide” into the European debate. 

Photo by Bakhrom Tursunov on Unsplash

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