National inaction and Commission delays undermining EU air quality protections

traffic jams in the city, road, rush hour

More than ten months after calling out five Member States for their failure to tackle air pollution, the European Commission has missed another opportunity to hold national governments accountable.

The Commission today released its monthly infringement package, taking seven Member States to court for various breaches of European law, but failing to pursue further steps against France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK for breaching air quality laws. [1]

The air quality breaches, which reached the final legal step before court action back in February, concern concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) on city streets. According to the European Environmental Agency, NO2 pollution is responsible for 75,000 premature deaths in the EU, 9,300 in France, 12,860 in Germany 17,290 in Italy, 6,740 in Spain and 14,050 in the UK every year. [2]

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) is the largest network of environmental citizens’ organizations in Europe with around 140 members in more than 30 countries.

The EEB’s Air Pollution Policy Officer Margherita Tolotto said:

It’s now been years since the Commission first launched its action and ten months since reaching the ‘final step’ before heading to court. This delay is hugely disappointing. People breathing filthy air all over Europe are being let down by their governments. The Commission must accelerate efforts to ensure EU law is respected and our health is protected from harmful pollution.

EU air pollution limits are currently being broken in at least 130 cities in 23 countries, exposing European citizens to health-harming emissions that are particularly damaging to the most vulnerable in society: children and the elderly.

Despite widespread failures to meet the legal limits the Commission has been slow to take national governments to court to force them to take action. So far only Bulgaria has been found guilty of having failed to act quickly enough to clean up its toxic air. [3]

The Commission did not announce referrals for air quality failures today despite reports in the German press and elsewhere that it intended to follow up on its February warning that: “If Member States fail to act within two months, the Commission may decide to take the matter to the Court of Justice of the EU”. [4] [5]

The Commission’s reluctance to push through infringement proceedings stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric of their Clean Air Forum, which it hosted in Paris last month.

The mayors of Paris and other major European cities have taken strong stances on air pollution. But action at local and European level is yet to be sufficiently matched by national governments, which have been criticized for watering down European air quality rules in the Council.

Notes to editors: 

[1] Cases against Italy and Hungary relating to ‘Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs’ that reached the final stage before court action in February and April 2017 were referred to the ECJ today, as was a ‘Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality’ case against Hungary, from October 2017, a ‘Maritime Affairs and Fisheries’ case against Bulgaria, Finland and Greece, from in July 2017 and a migration case from June 2017 against the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Key decisions from today’s infringement announcement can be found on the Commission website here:

[2] EEA Air Quality Report 2017:

[3] Air quality ruling is tip of the iceberg, EEB Press Release, 5 April 2017

[4] EU-Kommission will Deutschland verklagen, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 15 November 2017:—berlin-eu-kommission-will-deutschland-verklagen-dpa.urn-newsml-dpa-com-20090101-171115-99-870881

[5] Commission warns Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom of continued air pollution breaches  – Commission Press Release, 15 February 2017

For more information:

Anton Lazarus, Communications Officer


National inaction and Commission delays undermining EU air quality protections
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