Youth call on EU to defend access to justice

The EU is in breach of its obligations under the Aarhus Convention. Young people all over Europe are joining civil society organizations in calling for the EU to protect democracy and rule of law in the final trilogue on Monday 12th July.

The Aarhus Convention is an international treaty under which the EU is required to guarantee environmental democracy rights such as access to justice in environmental matters. The Aarhus Regulation is supposed to apply this Convention at the EU level, including by allowing the public to challenge environmental decisions of EU institutions in EU courts.

The Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee (ACCC) – the independent, expert authority on the matter – has stated in findings from 2011 and 2017 that the Aarhus Regulation is in fact non-compliant with the Convention. At the 2017 Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, the EU then scandalously became the first party in the Convention’s history to block the adoption of ACCC findings against itself.

Although the EU is amending the Regulation, the ACCC advised earlier this year that the Commission’s proposal would not be sufficient to bring the EU into compliance with the Convention and rebutted its excuses.

This is a legal dispute, not a political one. When the EU voluntarily chose to become party to the Aarhus Convention, it became bound to comply with it – and by selectively refusing to do so now, it is damaging the enforceability in good faith upon which the Convention relies. Moreover, it risks undermining other parties’ commitment to Aarhus and even perhaps to other treaties vital for global human rights.

The next meeting of the Aarhus Convention is in October so the problem of EU compliance will not just go away. As it stands, the EU is harming its reputation as a global leader in environmental matters, including under the Paris Agreement, and it is endangering its democratic values and the accountability that is necessary for its own legitimacy.

The Parliament has voted with broad support to strengthen the Aarhus Regulation in line with the advice of legal professionals and NGOs and it is now up to the Council to take a similar stand in the decisive, final trilogue to ensure that the EU is compliant in October.

It is vital that the type of legal challenges permitted do not exclude state aid, which would not only impede the necessary transition to a sustainable economy but also create unfairness and uncertainty in many industries, negatively impacting businesses and investment. The EU budget and recovery funds must be held accountable to the objectives of the European Green Deal and not contravene environmental law.

It is also important that the scope of administrative acts that can be challenged is not limited and that judicial uncertainty is avoided. The current amendments would mean a citizen would even have to wait for national measures implementing an EU administrative act to be able to challenge it, which would lead to avoidable delays and environmental harm which are completely unneeded with the current situation.

It should be unnecessary to restate the severity of the environmental crises we are facing regarding climate, biodiversity, and pollution. Millions of young people have of course been extremely active on this subject both in the streets and on our screens.

This Commission has also made it a central focus with its flagship European Green Deal. With so many decisions being currently made about the environment at the EU level, it is vital that youth are included in these processes – right now, but also in the decades to come when we are the ones living with the consequences.

While it is no secret that many young people have been disappointed with the EU’s environmental commitments and will continue to push for more ambition, any commitment without accountability is to an extent meaningless. For our generation, the legal avenue may be the last resort available to us to speak up on these issues.

Ultimately, a compliant EU Aarhus Regulation will be better for rule of law, democracy, businesses, the environment, and young people – and it is legally required. If the EU decides to ignore its obligations and breach fundamental human rights, what’s left of the EU as an international advocate for democracy?



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