Water Framework Directive will go to formal conciliation talks

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) will almost certainly be the subject of formal conciliation talks between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in the autumn, according to EU officials. Environment Ministers reached a political agreement on the Water Framework Directive (WFD) at their quarterly meeting on March 11.

The political agreement means that the Environment Council passed amendments to the proposed WFD that were accepted in June last year and during informal conciliation talks with the Parliament in January. The agreement opens the way to a formal adoption of a common position on the Directive in a future meeting of the Council of Ministers.

The Council of Ministers is the means of representation of Member States’ governments within the EU’s decision-making structure. Environmental issues are discussed by Environment Ministers at quarterly meetings of the Environment Council.

While the Council expressed its willingness to negotiate with Parliament to get the Directive adopted quickly, it rejected two disputed amendments to the WFD proposed by Parliament – on a reduction of the time limit for Member States to comply with the WFD’s standards from 34 years to 28 years; and on achieving zero emissions of dangerous substances by 2020.

The point of greatest divergence between Parliament and Council – an amendment calling for full-cost recovery charging for water – was not put forward to Ministers. The Council “appears to be adamantly against any stronger commitments” to it, a Commission source told World Water.

The Commission had apparently hoped the Council of Ministers would make a good will gesture to Parliament and accept the two amendments. The source told World Water the Council has decided to make concessions only in the context of an overall compromise.

The second reading is likely to be a formality, with the real negotiations taking place in formal conciliation talks which must follow the Council’s inability to reach a common position. Such talks must reach an agreement within six weeks or the proposal to create a pan-European framework for the management of all EU water resources will fail. “It will probably be harder to find a solution now that the Council has decided not to make concessions,” said the source.

With the Commission in turmoil, it is clear that Ritt Bjerregaard’s input will be crucial if the WFD is not to founder, as Bjerregaard has promised to support disputed amendments proposed by the Parliament, World Water was told. Bjerregaard has now resigned, but there is a possibility she will return to office since there are no allegations of her involvement in the corruption scandal that caused all 20 Commissioners to resign this week (see related story).

The Directive has been a bone of contention between the Parliament and the Council since June 1998 when the Council reached a preliminary political agreement on the WFD. This was seen by Parliament as tantamount to a disguised common position, prompting MEPs to sideline the proposal until they had the power to veto the proposal under the terms of the Amsterdam Treaty. With this power, Parliament had hoped to force the Council to adopt the amendments rather than risk the collapse of the WFD.

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