European Union takes 6 member states to court over air quality

Germany was among the countries sent to the ECJ for breaching EU standards for nitrogen dioxide limits | Andreas Gebert  Getty Images

The European Commission on Thursday referred six member states to the European Court of Justice for repeated failures to tackle air pollution.

The EU introduced limits for particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in 2010. In Italy those concentrations have been persistently exceeded in 2016 for up to 89 days; followed by Hungary with up to 76 days, and Romania on 38 days.

Action against the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Spain has not been pursued as measures being put in place in each of the countries, "appear to be appropriate, if implemented" the Commission has claimed.

Their proposed measures were rated by the Commission as sufficient for the time being to tackle the identified gaps. "That is why we are outlining the type of practical help that the Commission can provide to national authorities in their efforts to promote cleaner air for European cities and towns", said Vella.

However, whilst the government has been keen to highlight that air quality is improving in some parts of the country, the announcement from Brussels has prompted criticism from several corners.

The European court of justice (ECJ) has the power to impose multimillion euro fines if the countries do not address the problem swiftly.

Also on Thursday, in the continuing fall-out from the Volkswagen dieselgate scandal, the European commission issued renewed warnings to the UK, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg over their alleged failure to "have effective and dissuasive penalty systems in place to deter vehicle manufacturers from breaking the law".

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But he revealed last week that the United Kingdom environmental watchdog he proposes after Brexit would not have the automatic power to take the government to court.

EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Hungary and Romania had failed to comply with EU air quality standards.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking earlier this week at the budget debate in the German Bundestag, called for a hands-off approach to the German auto industry: "It is for us to tell the sector that it must fix the trust that it has lost".

"We can not wait any longer", he added.

Greenpeace Germany traffic expert Tobias Austrup, in response to Merkel's statement, warned that "the German government is giving the auto companies ineffective measures" to fight air pollution.

The decision fires the starting gun on a race to bring Britain back in line with air pollution limits before European Union judges in Luxembourg impose hefty fines in the form of a daily penalty or lump sum.

Today's announcement should surprise no one, the countries being sent to the court have had too many final warnings", said European Environmental Bureau Air Quality Policy Officer Margherita Tolotto, who added that "it is essential to understand why some governments, but not others. have been sent to court today.

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