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Water and the EU: new trends

About the blog

Oliver Loebel
Secretary General of EurEau.
  • Water and the EU: new trends
  • Water policies in the EU institutions.

Europe is changing. The recent European Parliament elections reflected this, with the two traditionally strongest groups – the centre-right Christian Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats – both losing seats.

On the other hand, Greens, pro-EU centrists and liberals and Eurosceptic populists all made gains.

Coupled with this shift, the European Commission is changing, with the president-elect, Ursula von der Leyen, driving an agenda for a more sustainable, ‘zero pollution’ green deal.

This is to be achieved thanks to an interdepartmental strategy that – amongst others -addresses water quality as well as hazardous substances, industrial emissions, etc.

EurEau shares this view. And it is timely that the EU institutions are making this commitment as the EU’s water policies are in the midst of being reviewed and revised.

We want environmental protection to be paramount in EU law; it is time that the principles of precaution, prevention and polluter-pays are transformed from vague words that are largely ignored into the robust ideals they are. By keeping harmful pollutants out of our water, we can go a long way to safeguarding our supply, avoid costly treatments AND contribute to the Circular Economy AND meet the Commission’s zero-pollution ambition.

Naturally, this zero-pollution ambition will directly affect EU legislation governing the water sector.

The Drinking Water Directive is already close to adoption, with an agreement probable in the next months. A number of quality parameters were revised to further protect consumers. A risk-based approach will be implemented comprising drinking water resources, production and supply, and distribution systems in buildings. Importantly, the new directive will put in place an approval scheme for materials in contact with drinking water. This will guarantee that the products our water operators procure on the market do not release hazardous substances.

The Regulation on Water Reuse should also be approved soon. It will set minimum requirements for treated waste water that is used in agriculture and introduce risk management plans. The regulation will guarantee that crops irrigated with treated waste water are safe for human consumption.

Two other highly relevant pieces of legislation are currently in the evaluation process and might be revised over the next two years. The Water Framework Directive requires that all European water bodies achieve good ecological status by 2027 at the very latest. The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive sets minimum requirements for the effluent of waste water treatment plants. Both directives will play an essential part in achieving the zero-pollution ambition. However, both directives legislate ‘downstream’. We must avoid a situation in which pollution is tackled through end-of-pipe measures. We therefore are pushing for source control measures or that polluters pay for returning the environment to its natural state.

The drafts for the next Common Agricultural Policy presented in June 2018 further developed the concept of “greening”, i.e. remunerating farmers based on environmental measures – an initiative that has so far been unenforceable. EurEau continues to call on EU policy makers to keep essential environmental credentials of the Commission proposal in the final text. They include the mandatory use of the Farm Sustainability Tool for Nutrients and the obligation to offer well-funded eco-schemes and strengthened “conditionality”. This means the CAP must be closely linked to the objectives of the Water Framework Directive and the requirements of the Drinking Water Directive. Financial support to farmers will be possible, but only if agricultural practice makes a measurable contribution to environmental and health protection.

Time will tell if the commitments being made in Brussels will be honoured. We will be there to remind our policy makers of their promise and to ensure they deliver on it.

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