EU Court ponders jail term for German minister over inaction on air quality

By agency reporter
September 9, 2019

The EU’s top court has discussed whether consistent inaction on illegally dirty air could spell a jail term for Bavaria’s Environment Minister.

The hearing was the latest step in a legal battle, led by Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), with the support of environmental lawyers ClientEarth.

Repeated court victories and multiple €10,000 fines have not compelled the Bavarian authorities to reduce illegal levels of dangerous nitrogen dioxide in Munich. This led DUH to call for a graver legal penalty: imprisonment.

The novelty of the issue prompted the German court to refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union.

On 3 September 2019, the Court heard arguments from the Bavarian government, Germany’s Federal government, and the European Commission. It became clear that far stronger measures would be necessary.

While the possibility of a prison sentence was discussed, it has not yet been decided what the enforcement measures will ultimately be.

ClientEarth clean air lawyer Ugo Taddei said: “Good legal enforcement is just as important as the law itself. Bavarian authorities are openly disregarding EU air quality laws aimed at protecting human health, but have so far faced only low-level fines. These – demonstrably – do not compel authorities to act.

“When faced with such serious legal breaches, national courts must be able to protect citizens by applying penalties that are not purely symbolic, but actually deter authorities from breaking the law. Authorities across the EU dealing with illegally dirty air should be watching this case carefully.”

At the hearing, the European Commission was unambiguous in its take, its representative stating that the Bavarian authorities’ failure to act on a court judgment “goes to the very heart of the rule of law”.

DUH CEO Jürgen Resch said: “This was an important moment for the rule of law. We are hoping for a clear ruling within a couple of months that ensures the Bavarian authorities follow court orders – as the fines issued to date are clearly not doing the job. Minister Markus Söder, like his predecessor, is putting the interests of the diesel industry far ahead of protecting the health of his citizens from toxic diesel emissions.”

The ruling will follow in the coming months. It will be binding across the EU. Other cases in Germany over dirty air, brought by DUH with the support of ClientEarth, are ongoing.

* ClientEarth works to protect the environment through advocacy, litigation and science


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