Spain is EU country that cares least about European environmental regulations

by Lorraine Williamson
European environmental regulations

With 26 ongoing investigations, Spain tops the list of countries with the most overt violations of European environmental regulations. Spain is closely followed by Greece with 25 and by Poland and France with 22 ongoing investigations each. 

Slovakia and Italy are also in the top 5 with 22 and 21 violations respectively. The Netherlands is in a remarkably good position with only 6 violations; only Estonia (4) and Denmark (3) comply with environmental regulations better. With 13 environmental violations of the European regulations, Belgium is the middle driver in this area. 

The fact that Spain is most often ignoring the environmental rules is not new: for years the country has occupied one of the top positions in the aforementioned ranking. According to EU sources, this is partly due to the political instability of the past 7 years in which no fewer than 4 new elections were called. That was in 2015, 2016, and twice in 2019. As a result, the adaptation to European environmental directives would have been delayed. 

However, not all environmental violations can be attributed to political instability because a number of guidelines were ignored long before that. For example, it has been known for decades that urban sewage water is discharged untreated into rivers and the sea. Below is an overview of the main environmental violations that the European Commission is currently investigating. 

Poor water treatment  

According to a European directive from 1991, all urban agglomerations with more than 15,000 inhabitants must adequately treat their sewage water. The first deadline, 2001, was not met. In 2004, the European Commission opened a file and Spain was granted a postponement to comply with these regulations. In 2018, however, there were still nine cities without properly functioning water treatment plants.

At the request of the EU, the European Court has imposed a fine of €12 million on Spain. For every six months that the treatment plants did not comply, fines of another €11 million followed. So far, Spain has already paid €63 million in fines for failing to comply with this environmental directive. In addition, there are 4 other files that are also related to poor treatment of sewage, for which fines will also follow in the near future.

The Spanish government has now admitted that the country will not be able to meet the European water purification standard until at least 2025. The municipal authorities are primarily responsible for this, followed by the regional and central governments respectively. 

Also read: Almost half of Spain´s water sources are polluted

Illegal water abstraction from protected nature reserve 

In 2014, after several complaints from environmental organisations about illegal tapping of water from the wetlands of the Doñana Natural Park (Huelva), the European Commission opened an investigation into this abuse in Spain. In 2019, the EU filed a lawsuit against Spain. Then, in the summer of 2021, the European Court condemned the central government for negligence in preventing illegal water extraction by local fruit growers. However, the ruling did not lead to a sanction for Spain. If the European Commission sees that the situation remains unchanged, sanctions could be imposed after a new lawsuit. The European Commission has now announced that it will start this lawsuit if the regional government of Andalucia gives the green light to make thousands of hectares of illegal irrigation in the Doñana area legal. So far, Vox, the PP, and Ciudadanos have voted in favour of this bill. 

Also read: Water illegally pumped out of nature reserves

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No ban on the sale of single-use plastics 

In 2019, a European directive was adopted to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment. From July 2021, there will be a sales ban on single-use plastic products such as straws and disposable cutlery. Recently, the European Commission opened a file because the Spanish government is not complying with this rule. In 2020, investigations had already been launched for failure to ban 2 other packaging and waste directives. The new waste processing law is currently being discussed in the Senate. Furthermore, it is expected to be finally approved in the first half of this year. 

Also read: European Commission wants Spain to ban single-use plastic products

Air pollution in Madrid and Barcelona 

There are currently 2 investigations underway into Spain’s negligence regarding poor air quality. One study concerns the high concentration of particulate matter, the other focuses on the high concentrations of nitrogen dioxide. In Madrid and Barcelona, ​​the latter has been exceeding the maximum permitted upper limit due to motorised traffic for more than 10 years. The European Commission sued Spain for this in the European Court in 2019. Furthermore, the verdict, in this case, is expected in the coming weeks. 

Also read: Air pollution kills thousands in Spain every year

Illegal Landfills 

Spain has already been charged three times with illegal waste dumps. It has also been sentenced three times but has never been given concrete sanctions. Currently, there is still a case for non-closing, sealing, and renovation of landfills. According to EU data, in 2018 there were 1,513 illegal landfills in Spain causing significant environmental degradation. This case is still pending but has so far not been brought before the European Court. 

High-speed train through protected nature reserve 

In 2011, the European Commission launched an investigation into the impact of the AVE section between Marchena and Osuna in the province of Seville, right through a bird protection area. Spain was convicted for this for the first time in 2016. Since the measures imposed at the time are still not being applied, Brussels warned last September that it plans to go to court again and impose a sanction if the Commission is successful. 

Three other investigations are underway into infrastructures constructed in Spain that are causing damage to protected natural areas. 

Nitrates in the water 

In 2021, the European Commission sued Spain in the European Court for failure to prevent water pollution from nitrates from agriculture and livestock. Since 2018, the Commission has been urging Spain to have regional authorities take measures against this nitrate pollution. The verdict of the case, which started in December last year, will not lead to a sanction. At least not for the time being. 

Also read: The EU denounces Spain for nitrates pollution

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