Commission proposes to strengthen the protection of the environment through criminal law

Irina Baranova

The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a new EU Directive to crack down on environmental crime, fulfilling a key commitment of the European Green Deal. The proposal intends to make protection of the environment more effective by obliging Member States to take criminal law measures. It defines new environmental crimes, sets a minimum level for sanctions and strengthens the effectiveness of law enforcement cooperation. It also obliges the Member States to support and assist people who report environmental offences and cooperate with the enforcement. This proposal will help to protect nature and natural resources, as well as public health and well-being.

“The willful destruction of our natural environment threatens our very survival as humanity. Letting law-breakers act with impunity undermines our collective efforts to protect nature and biodiversity, fight the climate crisis, reduce pollution, and eliminate waste,” EU Commission Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans said, adding that serious abuses must be met with a serious response, and today’s proposal lays the groundwork for that.

According to the Commission, the proposal sets new EU environmental criminal offences, including illegal timber trade, illegal ship recycling or illegal abstraction of water. In addition, the proposal clarifies existing definitions of environmental criminal offences, providing for an increased legal certainty.

Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Vera Jourova noted that the environment knows no borders and crimes against it display their negative effects across Member States. “We must use all possible means to protect the environment at Union level. Criminal law is one of them, and this proposal will give law enforcement authorities and the judiciary the tools to act more effectively against environmental crimes across the Union,” Jourova said.

The Commission proposed to set a common minimum denominator for sanctions for environmental crimes. Where offence cause or are likely to cause death or serious injury to any person, Member States have to provide at least for imprisonment of up to ten years. The draft directive also proposes additional sanctions, including the restoration of nature, exclusion from access to public funding and procurement procedures or the withdrawal of administrative permits.

The Commission said the proposal also aims at making  relevant investigations and criminal proceedings more effective. It provides for support of inspectors, police, prosecutors and judges through training, investigative tools, coordination and cooperation, as well as better data collection and statistics. The Commission proposed that each Member State develops national strategies that ensure a coherent approach at all levels of enforcement and the availability of the necessary resources.

The proposal will help cross-border investigation and prosecution. Environmental crimes often impact several countries for example the illicit trafficking of wildlife or have cross-border effects (for example in the case of cross-border pollution of air, water and soil). Law enforcement and judicial authorities can only tackle these crimes when they work together across borders.

The Commission said it will continue to support Member States by offering law enforcement practitioners and their professional networks a platform for strategic discussions and providing them with financial assistance. Finally, as environmental crime is a global phenomenon, the Commission will continue to promote international cooperation in this area.

EU Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius stressed that environmental crimes cause irreversible and long-term damage to people’s health and the environment. “Yet, they are hard to investigate and bring before the Court, while sanctions tend to be weak. That is why we need to strengthen our environmental criminal law. At a time where the international community discusses the crime of ecocide, a high level of environmental protection is not only important for present but also future generations as we redouble our efforts to fight environmental degradation,” Sinkevicius said.

Finally, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders warned that there is no time to lose. “We must make sure that our rules on fighting environmental crime are targeted and ambitions enough to create a real change. With this new directive, we have another strong tool to protect the environment and ultimately our planet. The proposal today builds on lessons learned and experience gained over the past years and will directly address root-causes that have prevented the protection of the environment from being as effective as it should be,” he said.

The legislative proposal will now be submitted to the European Parliament and the Council.

Commission proposes to strengthen the protection of the environment through criminal law

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