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Brussels refers Greece to the Court of Justice over levels of nitrates in its water

  • Brussels refers Greece to the Court of Justice over levels of nitrates in its water

About the entity

European Commission
The European Commission is the EU's executive arm. It takes decisions on the Union's political and strategic direction.

In April 2015, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that Greece violated EU law by failing to protect its waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (C-149/14). Four years later, the problem is still not fully resolved. Therefore, the Commission is calling on the Court of Justice of the European Union to impose financial sanctions in the form of a lump sum of € 2,639.25 per day with a minimum lump sum of € 1,310,000 and a daily penalty payment of € 23.753,25 from the day of the first judgement until full compliance is reached or until the second Court judgment.

Under EU law on the protection of waters against pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources (the Nitrates Directive, Council Directive 91/676/EEC), Member States monitor their waters and identify those affected or likely to be affected by pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources. They also designate areas of land that drain into these waters as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones and set up appropriate action programmes to prevent and reduce the pollution.

In 2011, Greece had not designated a number of areas as Nitrates Vulnerable Zones and had not established action programmes for these areas. As a result, by sending a letter of formal notice to the Greek authorities, the Commission opened infringement proceedings in October 2011. Since the Court ruling against Greece in April 2015, Greece has established 12 new Nitrate Vulnerable Zones; however, the Greek authorities have not established action programmes for these new zones.

As a result, the Commission further pursued proceedings by sending a letter of formal notice under Article 260(2) of TFEU in October 2017. In addition to the failure to establish such action programmes, Greece has not provided any calendar of compliance or target date. By failing to adopt these action programmes Greece has still not complied with the Court ruling of 24 April 2015 (in case C-149/14, Commission vs Greece).

Hence, the procedure to establish the action programmes remains at an initial stage. The Commission has, therefore, decided to refer the case back to the Court of Justice and ask the Court to impose financial sanctions.

Background

Excess levels of nitrates can damage freshwaters and the marine environment by a process known as ‘eutrophication', promoting excessive growth of algae that chokes other life and leading to effects, such as the death of fish in lakes and rivers. Purifying excess nitrates from drinking water is also a very costly process.

In practice, under Article 260(2) of Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) if a Member State fails to take the necessary steps to comply with a judgment of the Court of Justice, the Commission may call on the Court to impose financial sanctions, in the form of a lump sum and a daily penalty payment. The financial sanctions take into account:

  • the seriousness of the infringement;
  • the duration of the infringement;
  • special "n" factor (which varies between Member States and takes into account their Gross domestic product, GDP, in millions of euros and number of seats of the Member State concerned in the European Parliament).

The financial sanction consists of a lump sum payment (to penalise the existence of the infringement itself), and a daily penalty payment (to penalise the continuation of the infringement after the Court's judgment).

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