Ministers Reach Deal on EU Liability Plan

European environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg today agreed in principle on an EU financial liability regime for environmental damage caused by companies. Preliminary details of the compromise emerged late in the afternoon. The settlement provides comfort to both industry lobbyists and environmental campaigners.

Ministers have said that liability insurance should be voluntary pending a review in five years. Meanwhile, permit and state of the art defences should not justify exemptions from liability, but will be mitigating factors reducing compensation payable by polluting firms. This also effectively expands the law's coverage to include environmental damage caused by GMOs, said European Commission officials.

Otherwise, the scope of the law is unchanged from compromise proposals tabled by the Greek presidency earlier this week. For calculating liability for damage to biodiversity, the latter is defined as both EU-designated protected habitats and protected species whether in or out of their habitats. Member states can supplement this with their own nationally protected sites. National authorities will not be liable to cover clean-up costs if polluters fail to pay or cannot be identified.

The settlement appears to be midway between the lines being promoted by the European Commission and the European Parliament. Several details remain to be settled before ministers adopt a formal political agreement.

When they do, Austria and Ireland are expected to vote against the deal since it excludes nuclear installations. So will Germany because it opposes the overall structure. The trio's combined voting weight is insufficient to prevent it passing.

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