New members strengthen EU environment standards

The accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden to the European Union (EU) has resulted in strengthened EU environment protection standards, says the Commission.

When Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU a special provision – the Review Clause – in the Act of Accession allowed these three new Member States to keep certain different national health and environmental provisions for four years. This period will end on 31 December 1998. During this time the EU reviewed its own health and environmental standards accordingly, in close co-operation with the three new Member States. In almost all cases the Review Process resulted in the adoption of strengthened environmental standards throughout the EU, for example on sulphur in petrol, mercury in batteries and labelling of dangerous substances.
In other cases the new Member States will keep their standards for a longer period of time. This time is needed to continue the review and to find EU wide solutions. A survey shows that the review proved to be a success in protecting the environment and human health.

On 1 January 1995 Austria, Finland and Sweden became members of the EU. In the accession negotiations, the environment and health were important and sensitive issues due to their high level of protection in these States.

Austria, Finland and Sweden had already adopted the major part of the ‘acquis communautaire’ in the framework of the Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA). Consequently, at the time when the EU accession negotiations started major parts of the EU law concerning the environment and health had already been incorporated into the national legislation of the applicant countries.

The approaches within the Review Process were different from case to case and aimed at tackling the different issues in the most effective way. In one case, namely the benzene content of petrol, the Commission tabled a new Directive with new obligatory standards, which will go beyond those of the new Member States. While Austria has a limit value of 3% of benzene content of petrol, the current EU legislation demands Member States not to exceed a limit value of 5%. A new Directive in the framework of the Auto Oil Programme will allow only 1% of benzene in petrol on an EU wide base.

Another example is the Austrian maximum content of 0.1% for sulphur in gasoil. This norm will become applicable by 1 January 2008 throughout the EU in a new Directive in the framework of the acidification strategy. In the meantime, Member States could request a stricter level than the current one.

In other cases, Directives have been adapted to technical progress. An example is the Batteries Directive whose adaptation to technical progress led the EU to ban mercury in almost all batteries.

The other issues tackled by the review concerned different requirements for the classification and labelling of over 100 dangerous substances in Austria and Sweden. To classify a substance as dangerous (for health or the environment) the experts apply criteria, which a substance must fulfil before being categorised as dangerous. These criteria partly differed in Austria and Sweden from those applied in the EU. The Commission proposed to review all existing legislation. At the same time the scope of this legislation was expanded and has now also consequences for plant protection products and pesticides, providing for modernisation and thereby meeting the aspirations of Austria, Finland and Sweden.

All three Member States have restrictions on the marketing and use of PCP (pentachlorphenol), Austria and Sweden also have restrictions on the marketing and use of cadmium and tin compounds. After preliminary reviews of PCP and cadmium, risk assessments and analyses of advantages and drawbacks were carried out, then the legal provisions of the EU were re-examined. The Commission aims at solving the differences by a technical adaptation early next year of its Directive 76/769/EEC.

All three Member States have restrictions of the cadmium content of fertilisers. The Commission proposes a new Directive that allows Austria, Finland and Sweden to uphold their restrictions of the marketing of fertilisers that contain cadmium for a longer period of time. The Commission will continue to review the EU legislation during this time.

The Commission’s Communication “The Review Clause: Environmental and Health Standards Four Years After the Accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden to the European Union” is available at DG XI’s homepage linked below.

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