EU lawmakers back heavy fines, jail sentences against green crimes
Lawmakers in the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee unanimously voted in favour of stricter sanctions against people found guilty of environmental crimes, with potential jail terms and fines reaching up to 10% of a company’s global turnover.
Toine Manders, a Dutch lawmaker with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is the Parliament’s lead negotiator on the EU’s environmental crime directive that was voted today.
“We successfully negotiated a zero-tolerance position on crimes that have huge consequences for human health and the environment,” Manders commented after the vote on Tuesday (21 March).
Environmental crime is one of the most profitable and fastest-growing areas of international criminal activity, with a yearly turnover of more than €200 billion, according to EU estimates.
To address this, the European Commission tabled a proposal in December 2021 to update the EU’s existing directive, aiming to provide a more harmonised framework for EU member states to deter and punish offenders.
In Parliament, lawmakers have added new offences to the list of punishable crimes, including illegal timber trade, illegal depletion of water resources, pollution caused by ships, and breaches to the EU’s chemicals legislation.
For more serious offences, MEPs have backed stricter sanctions.
Companies found guilty of crimes against the environment could face a minimum fine of 10% of their average worldwide turnover in the three previous business years – instead of the Commission’s original 5% proposal – with prison sentences for individuals ranging between 4 and 10 years, depending on the severity of the crime.
Additionally, companies could face measures such as bans from access to public funding or withdrawal of licences, and will need to restore the damaged environment and compensate victims according to the ‘polluter pays principle’.
“Taxpayers cannot be expected to foot the bill for any clean-up jobs caused by environmental crimes,” said MEP Franco Roberti, a former Italian magistrate who sits with the left-wing Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament.
“and they should certainly not have to pay the long-term price of poorer health or reduced quality of life,” he commented after the vote.
Brussels wants 10-year prison term for severe environmental damage
The European Commission proposed strengthening the law covering criminal environmental damage on Wednesday (15 December) by proposing harsher sentences, including a maximum term of at least 10 years in prison, and including more nature-damaging activities in the scope.
The EU’s environmental crime directive was initially adopted in 2008 after the Erika shipwreck in the English Channel, which released thousands of tons of oil into the sea and polluted the shores of France’s Brittany coast.
Back then, the Commission had initially sought prison terms of up to ten years and fines of up to €1.5 million but had to back down due to resistance from the UK. Ultimately, the level of penalty was left to the discretion of EU member states, with the directive simply requiring sanctions to be “effective, proportionate and dissuasive”.
Manders told journalists before the vote that he would have preferred a regulation instead of a directive, in order to ensure greater harmonisation between EU countries. While regulations are directly applicable across all EU member states, directives leave more leeway for governments when transposing them into national law.
“I hope that the member states will want to have a maximum harmonised transposition of this directive,” Manders said, explaining that to achieve this, the proposal considers training and judicial support for judges, prosecutors and police forces.
In order to ensure consistent enforcement of the directive across EU countries, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) was designated as the main public prosecutor, alongside the public prosecutors in the member states and with the collaboration of the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust).
“EPPO has no competence enough yet because they only deal with financial offences and financial crimes. So we asked the Commission to extend the competence of EPPO in cooperation with Eurojust,” Manders explained.
As all political parties are supportive of the compromise amendments approved in committee, the plenary vote in Parliament will be postponed in order to save time and accelerate the process, Manders said.
The final step in the adoption of the directive will follow in the coming months during so-called trialogue talks between the European Parliament, the Commission, and the EU’s 27 member states.
“The trialogues will be tough,” predicted Manders, who is expecting a concerted pushback from EU member states in the negotiations, in particular when it comes to sanctions.
“When we talk about competition law, we want to keep the same level [of fines]. But some states are not used to having these sanctions for environmental crimes,” he said.
Asked about the reason for not holding a plenary vote and anticipating trialogue negotiations, Manders explained that the importance of the directive requires fast adoption, especially in view of the upcoming European elections in Spring 2024.
“The more time we lose, the more difficult it will be to be in time before the next elections. And of course, the result of the trialogue will be voted in plenary, that’s clear,” he said.
Green NGOs welcome the proposal
Environmental groups applauded the Parliament’s position, which they see as more ambitious than the Commission’s original proposal.
WWF welcomed the expanded scope of the directive to cover all forms of environmental crimes that were overlooked by the initial proposal.
Campaigners also approved the broader definition of environmental damage, which includes harm to human health, not only through death or serious injury but also by causing physical and physiological impairments.
“With this vote, MEPs are showing that they recognise the seriousness of environmental crimes and understand that having a comprehensive Directive is critical to finally put an end to these criminal conducts,” commented WWF policy officer Audrey Chambaudet after the vote.