Skip to main content

Eu Environment Council

Volume 401: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what the outcome was of the Environment Council on 4 March 2003; what the Government's stance was on the issues discussed, including its voting records; and if she will make a statement. [101747]

I represented the UK at Environment Council on 4 March 2003, accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. The Council reached a political agreement on one legislative measure, and also considered a number of other important issues.The Council reached a political agreement on the Forest Focus Regulation, which concerns forest monitoring, with the UK among its supporters. Italy, Spain, and Portugal would have preferred greater support for fire prevention measures, and therefore abstained. The Commission also withheld its support.We debated the Commission's proposals to revise the Bathing Water Directive, which would raise the required bathing water quality standards across the EU. There was general support for high standards where this would benefit the public, but widespread concern that the measures should be proportionate to the public health benefits sought, and flexible in their application. My right hon. Friend, the Minister for the Environment expressed concern over the soundness of the Commission's cost benefit analysis, and explained that, in the UK, illness related to bathing in sea waters is not a problem serious enough to feature in the public health surveillance system. Most bathing waters in the UK would already meet the higher standards proposed, but there would be high costs involved in ensuring compliance at all times for about 15 per cent. of beaches in England and Wales. There was a risk therefore that the proposals as currently drafted would incur disproportionate costs of compliance for comparatively little benefit. Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, Ireland, Spain, Germany, France and Austria all expressed similar concerns. There was wide support for more flexibility in the use of management measures to implement the Directive. Most states also asked for greater clarity of definitions. There was no support for extending the scope of the Directive to waters used for other recreational purposes, and this was accepted by the Commission. The Presidency concluded that Council had given a sufficient steer for further progress to be achieved by the next Council, in June.Council also debated the proposed Environmental Liability Directive, and in particular the issues of financial security and biodiversity. I made it clear that the UK insurance industry did not support compulsory financial security. It would make little sense to make financial security compulsory if the, market is unable to provide the necessary cover. There was support for this line of reasoning from Ireland, France, Italy, Netherlands, the Commission and Germany. There was also some support for a compromise proposed by the Greek Presidency, that compulsory financial security should be phased in. This was not an option I was able to support. On biodiversity, I put forward the view, also supported by France and Germany, that to be insurable and provide certainty, the scope of the Directive should be site-based. The remaining Members favoured extending the scope of the directive to cover all EU-protected biodiversity wherever it may, with an option to include nationally protected species too. The Presidency concluded that progress had been made towards reaching political agreement in June.We agreed Council Conclusions calling for a community strategy to protect and conserve the marine environment. The Commission reported on action taken in relation to the Prestige incident, and will present a full report to the European Council later this month. Council accepted a Spanish request asking the Commission to consider liability and sanctions in relation to the safety of marine transport. France and Spain also reported on the progress of clean-up operations.We also discussed the Council's contribution on Sustainable Development for the Spring European Council, and agreed a lengthy set of Conclusions, which included an emphasis on the need for implementation of the commitments made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last September, and on the importance of encouraging the development of environmental technologies.Council also adopted Conclusions on the Fifth Pan-European Ministerial Conference "Environment for Europe", to be held in Kiev in May.The Commission gave an update on approvals of Genetically Modified Organisms, and their co-existence with conventional crops. It was announced that an option paper on co-existence by Commissioner Fischler would be released on 5 March, and a Round Table discussion would follow at the end of April.On approvals, Commissioner Walstrom noted that there are currently 19 applications in the process, which should be dealt with on a case by case basis. I supported the position of the Commission, along with Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and Ireland, that existing legislation is adequate for an orderly return to decision making. A number of other member states continued to argue against proceeding with authorisations until the new traceability and labelling rules come into force. The Commissioner explained that it was unlikely that any authorisation would complete the process before the traceability and labelling rules came into force in any event. She emphasised the need to move the process forward, and that there is no justification for further delay.Denmark sought clarification from the Commission concerning its guidelines on the presence of metabolites in groundwater. The Commission confirmed that these are not legally binding, and that the expected groundwater directive will look into this issue.The Commission reported that it was on track with its long-awaited chemicals package, with an early interim consultation, followed by adoption by the Commission in early summer. It also formally presented its proposals on ozone depleting substances, a monitoring mechanism for greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds in paints.Over lunch we discussed progress towards ratification of the Kyoto protocol.