The Commission is responsible for making sure that all EU countries properly apply EU law. In this role, the Commission is referred to as the ‘guardian of the treaties’. With over 200 legal acts to monitor in 27 Member States, this is a major task in the environmental field.
Find out more about how the Commission monitors the application of EU law.
Environmental enforcement priorities
The 2016 Communication EU law: “Better results through better application” explains how the Commission ensures the application, implementation and enforcement of EU law for the benefit of all citizens, consumers and businesses. The Communication introduces a more strategic approach to the Commission's enforcement actions.
The Commission focuses its enforcement policy on the most important breaches of EU law affecting the interests of its citizens and businesses or cases with a strategic or structural dimension.
Individual cases of incorrect application of EU law should be dealt with at national level, provided that there are appropriate mechanisms, including judicial ones. This is due to the specificity of the infringement procedure, which aims to ensure that Member States give effect to EU law in the general interest, not to provide individual redress. Moreover, the national administrative and judicial authorities are better equipped to investigate specific environmental issues and to take immediate measures.
The 2019 European Green Deal states that
In addition to launching new initiatives, the Commission will work with the Member States to step up the EU’s efforts to ensure that current legislation and policies relevant to the Green Deal are enforced and effectively implemented.
Based on the European Green Deal and the 2016 communication EU law: Better results through better application, the Directorate-General for Environment focuses its enforcement action on the following general priorities
- cases where Member States have failed to communicate national transposition measures
- cases where national transposition measures have incorrectly transposed EU directives
- cases where Member States have failed to comply with a judgment of the Court of Justice
- cases involving possible serious damage to EU financial interests
The Directorate-General for Environment also takes action to address environmental governance issues and the three environmental pillars of the Green Deal: circular economy, biodiversity and zero pollution. More specifically:
- Circular economy: enforcement action focuses on ensuring the complete transposition of the legislation, as well as the closure and rehabilitation of illegal and substandard landfills, including the obligation to provide appropriate treatment of waste before landfilling.
- Biodiversity: enforcement action addresses structural shortcomings in the implementation of the nature Directives, i.e. the completion of the Natura 2000 network, the adequate conservation of the Special Areas of Conservation, and the insufficient protection of species and habitats in decline due to infrastructure projects, agricultural practices or illegal logging.
- Zero Pollution: enforcement action focuses on addressing structural or systemic shortcomings, such as the insufficient measures to meet air quality standards for key pollutants (PM10, NO2 and PM2.5), the failure to ensure collection and treatment of urban wastewaters; the non-compliance with planning obligations and measures concerning noise and pollution from nitrates; the non-respect of rules on drinking water or the operation of industrial plants.
- Environmental Governance: enforcement action supports the implementation of the horizontal instruments that underpin good governance, such as rules on access to information, public participation, access to justice, environmental assessments and environmental liability.
Sources of infringement information
There are a number of ways in which the Commission monitors the application of EU environment law and detects infringements. The Commission identifies infringement based on its own investigations. The Commission also relies on other sources of information such as complaints from individuals, business and organisations, petitions from the European Parliament, and questions from MEPS.
Cases initiated by the Commission’s own initiative
In the vast majority of cases, the Commission detects infringements by its own means and focuses on cases with a strategic or structural dimension, in accordance with the 2016 Communication EU law: “Better results through better application”. First of all, the Commission monitors whether Member States respect the deadline set by the EU environmental directives to be transposed into national law. The Commission also carries out studies and assessments to verify whether the national measures transposing EU directives have correctly incorporated the legal obligations into national law. Furthermore, the Commission assesses the reports and information sent by Member States with respect to the implementation of EU environmental legislation.
Anyone can file a complaint to the Commission about any measure (law, regulation or administrative action) or the absence of a measure or practice by an EU country that they consider incompatible with EU law.
Individuals and organisations have the right to submit a petition to the European Parliament about the application of EU law. The Petitions Committee of the European Parliament assesses the petitions and usually asks the Commission to investigate. The Directorate-General for Environment is responsible for handling around one-third of these petitions.
The Directorate-General for Environment also receives and responds to written questions from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) raising concerns about the implementation and application of EU environmental law.
Access to justice in environmental matters
The Commission does not intervene in all individual cases of possible bad application of EU law, but it uses the evidence and information received through complaints, parliamentary questions, petitions and other correspondence. The Commission aims to identify issues of wider principle, a problem of compliance of national legislation with EU law or systematic failure to comply with EU law, which would justify the opening of an infringement procedure.
Individual cases of possible bad application of EU law, should be dealt with by the administrative and judicial authorities of Member States. National courts are the ‘common courts’ competent to uphold actions by individuals seeking the annulment of national measures or financial compensation for the damage caused by such measures.
The Commission has published information on how to deal with grievances in national courts. This includes factsheets in all official EU languages explaining how Europeans can protect their rights under EU environmental law, in particular when facing damage to environment, health or property. Find out more on the e-Justice portal.
If Member States fail to properly implement EU laws, the Commission may launch a formal infringement procedure against the country in question. Before launching a formal procedure, the Commission may also communicate with the Member States in order to investigate the matter.
Find out more about the stages of an infringement procedure
The judgements and orders issued by the Court of Justice of the EU are key for better understanding the EU legislation and implementing it correctly. You can access all EU case-law including relevant environmental judgements online.
Summaries of judgments and orders of the Court of Justice, the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal related to EU environmental policy are available in the digest of case-law.
For the most important excerpts from the rulings of the Court related to the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive, consult the brochure.
Studies and publications
- Study to assess the benefits delivered through the enforcement of EU environmental legislation
- Factsheet: Enforcing EU Environmental law – Benefits and Achievements
Each year the Commission publishes an Annual Report on monitoring the application of EU law. The Report contains a specific chapter on the work of the Directorate-General for the Environment.
Training modules explaining the main legal obligations under EU environmental law can be found here.