The Environment in the CJEU: Recent developments

In the last few months, there have been three separate actions before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) regarding the environment, specifically air pollution requirements and the logging of UNESCO World Heritage site, the Bialowieza forest.

The European Union has been more that just an economic organisation for many decades, and the environment is just one area now encompassed within its jurisdiction and currently one of its biggest.


In April, the CJEU ruled that Poland’s logging in the Bialowieza forest was in breach of EU law. The European Commission took action against them last year for their activities. Judicial proceedings began after Poland had failed to respond to the Commission bringing the issue to their attention.

The Bialoweiza forest is a UNESCO world heritage site and is also home to the largest herd of nearly extinct bison in Europe.

The European Commission took action against Poland under Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Article 258 gives discretion to the European Commission to bring an action against a Member state for failing to comply with EU law. There are typically two stages to the action. An informal action where the Commission notifies the Member State may be in breach of EU law. This gives the chance for the Member State to respond within a given time. If there is no response, formal proceedings begin.

Formal proceedings include the Commission writing to the Member State outlining the reasons of why they are in breach, also giving the Member State the ability to respond before judicial proceedings begin. If there is still no action by the Member state, the Commission can begin proceedings in the CJEU. The court will then assess and decide on the merits of the case before providing judgment.

Poland was found to be in breach of an EU directive which is a type of EU legislation thatdirects Member States to achieve a particular result without setting out a particular method for the Member State to follow. For example, the EU may issue a directive to ensure free admission for all EU students to museums for cultural enrichment. The Member State then has the freedom to choose how to implement it and achieve that result.

If Poland or any Member state fails to comply with a judgment of the CJEU, an action under Article 260 may be brought. This is because they are under an obligation to follow all the judgments.


Nitrogen oxide levels

On another note, several EU Member States have been referred to the CJEU by the European Commission over their failure to meet EU standards on air pollution or nitrogen oxide levels in those states. These Member states are: Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Hungary and the UK. Article 258, as discussed above, will be invoked.

no2 levels

The role of the European Union in this scenario is to set and maintain environmental standards in Europe. But, is it right for another body to prevent a State from using their own natural resources as they deem fit?

Many academics and environmentalists agree that it is right that environmental standards are set and enforced by supra-national bodies because the effects of the deterioration of the environment are rarely confined within state borders. It is also often argued that States themselves have too much outside influence to be able to properly protect the environment.

These cases before the EU courts is part of a greater picture of increased global concern for the environment; a fight involving governments, judiciaries, companies, lobbyists, scientists and ultimately, individuals.

By Kimberly Nielsen in May ‘18

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