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Environment Council

Volume 448: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2006

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, represented the UK at the Environment Council in Luxembourg on 27 June.

The Council adopted a political agreement on the proposed directive on the assessment and management of flood risks. Discussion focused mainly on the dates and deadlines to be included in the text, and, briefly, on resolving the circumstances under which a member state must obtain the agreement of affected neighbours, before taking measures which could have transboundary effects. On dates, the UK was successful in obtaining longer (until 22 December 2010) for the completion of existing work that will be used to satisfy the requirements of the directive on a transitional basis. Council also agreed changes to the deadlines for completion of the first preliminary risk assessments (2012), and for the first review of flood risk maps (2019). Flood management measures that have a ‘significant’ effect on flood risk in neighbouring states will be subject to prior agreement between the member states concerned. Most member states endorsed the scope proposed by the European Commission, namely coverage of all rivers and coastal zones within the EU; a matter on which the UK has expressed misgivings at each stage of the negotiation on grounds of proportionality and subsidiarity. Given that the final text provides much greater flexibility for member states than the original Commission proposal, and that the burdens are consequently much lighter, the UK was on balance able to support the agreement reached in Council, along with all other member states.

Pending the opinion of the European Parliament at first reading, the Council agreed a general approach on the proposed directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe, the first legal measure to be brought forward under the Commission’s Air Thematic Strategy of September 2005. Two major outstanding issues were the focus of debate at the Council; the new standards for fine particles and the extra flexibility that may be allowed for compliance with existing limit values. The general approach includes a new two-part approach to regulating fine particles, combining a non-binding exposure reduction target with a binding limit value. It also gives limited extra time for member states to comply with existing limit values for larger particles. The UK supported the general approach.

The Council unanimously adopted conclusions on the thematic strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste which addresses several waste management issues at EU level, including rising levels of waste generation, over-complex legislation, and the need for more recycling. The Council also unanimously adopted conclusions on the thematic strategy on the urban environment which encourages member states to adopt policies and processes that will promote sustainable development and better, cleaner environments in their towns and cities.

The Council held an exchange of views on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the basis of a presidency discussion paper setting out recent EU level developments, and raising questions regarding the EU decision-making process. The UK intervened to support the current decision-making process and to express its support for the work of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), noting that its work was still improving and that more could be done on risk communication and transparency.

The Council also held an exchange of views on the strategy for biofuels and the biomass action plan on the basis of a presidency discussion paper focusing on the contribution of these to the European energy policy and to achieving wider environmental objectives such as those relating to climate change. The UK had submitted a written response to the Council, highlighting our key policy objectives of ensuring: that the European energy policy and wider environmental objectives are mutually supportive; and that sustainable production and use of biomass and biofuels should be promoted.

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the environmental technologies action plan (ETAP). The Commission urged more action to increase market take-up of environmental technologies and supported the exchange of best practice between member states. In addition, Ministers discussed the use of structural funds for environmental policies. A number of member states spoke of the importance of using cohesion funds to pay for implementation of EU legislation.

Under “Any Other Business”, the Council discussed Euro V, the proposed regulation calling for harmonised vehicle emissions reductions, and the inclusion of a second stage of stricter NOx emissions limits in Euro VI. Several member states, including the UK, intervened to support the inclusion of Euro VI in the Euro V discussions. In addition, the North sea conference, management of biowaste, import of wild birds, and waste prevention were raised by member states. The presidency updated Ministers on conferences on the chemicals Regulation (REACH), the European sustainable development network and green public procurement; and on the outcomes from international meetings on the Cartagena protocol on biosafety, the convention on biological diversity and the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants. The Commission updated Ministers on water scarcity and drought.

The Council also adopted the common positions on LIFE+ and REACH. LIFE+ is a financial instrument to provide support at community level for the implementation, updating and development of environment policy and legislation from 2007-13. REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) is a proposed Regulation designed to improve chemical management in the EU.