The European Commission has approved this Wednesday a draft directive that expands the list of environmental crimes and provides for the imposition of tougher sanctions, including heavy financial penalties for offending companies and prison sentences of at least 10 years for people convicted of acts more serious. The new directive seeks to strengthen the protection of nature and the environment and to ensure that in all countries sufficiently rigorous dissuasive penalties are imposed to avoid, above all, deliberate or negligent damage.
The Executive Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, has indicated after the approval of the project that “letting violators of the law act with impunity undermines our collective effort to protect nature and biodiversity, fight the climate crisis, reduce the pollution and eliminate waste ”. And the European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, recalled that “environmental crimes cause irreversible and long-term damage to human health and the environment, but despite this they are difficult to investigate and sanctions tend to be light” .
The draft directive establishes new categories of crimes at European level, which must be severely punished by the national regulations of each country. New crimes include illegal timber trade, illegal ship recycling, illegal water extraction, dumping of toxic substances from ships, serious violations of invasive species regulations, or serious violations of chemicals legislation. .
Brussels considers that national regulations on such crimes are too divergent and, in general, too lax and tolerant of offenders. And he points out that large companies do not avoid an infraction if they perceive that they will only face punishments of an administrative nature. The Commission points to the case of Volkswagen as an example of this impunity, which carried out a massive manipulation of the engines to hide the real level of emissions.
The draft directive aims to put an end to this impunity. And for this, it will oblige the Member States to introduce additional penalties to the fines. “In the case of companies, these additional penalties tend to be more dissuasive than mere financial penalties”, points out the European Commission. The penalties added include the obligation to repair the environmental damage caused, the exclusion from any public aid program, the withdrawal of permits to carry out the activity in which the infringement was committed, the judicial liquidation of the company or the temporary closure of some of its facilities.
Those responsible for environmental crimes that cause deaths or endanger people’s lives must also be sentenced to a maximum prison sentence of at least 10 years, according to the legislative project approved by the Commission.
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The text specifies the aggravating circumstances that must be taken into account to impose the harshest punishments. A list that includes having caused irreparable damage, having used false documentation or having obtained a great economic benefit with the infringement. The directive also establishes minimum periods to avoid the prescription of crimes. In the most serious cases, they may be investigated and punished for at least 10 years after they have been committed.
Brussels hopes that the directive will force states to toughen up the prosecution and punishment of environmental crimes. And it points out as an area of special concern the illegal traffic of wood, rampant in countries like Romania. The Commission opened a file in December 2020 against that country for failing to comply with community regulations and maintaining very lax vigilance on the abusive exploitation of forests. The timber traffickers even murdered two forest guards last year who were trying to stop their activity.
The Commission notes that illegal timber trafficking is only punishable by imprisonment in 17 of the 27 EU countries. National rules are also very lenient, according to Brussels, with illegal water extraction, an illegal activity in which “checks are infrequent and penalties too low,” according to a recent report by the EU Court of Auditors. The penalties are also too low, according to the Commission, for promoters of real estate projects who do not carry out an environmental impact study or who carry out the works without waiting for the necessary authorization.
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