You might be forgiven for thinking that the United Kingdom has already left the European Union, but this country remains very much a member state – for the time being. This means that the UK is still subject to all of its legal obligations under European primary legislation (e.g. the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) and EU secondary legislation (Regulations, Directives, Decisions etc).
An interesting example of this was reported in The Independent (4 February 2019) where it would appear that the European Commission is in the process of taking enforcement action against the UK in relation to untreated sewage leaks at sites in Sunderland and London.
The link to the article in The Independent can be found below:
UK facing EU court after failing to stop sewage spills
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Apparently, this has been an ongoing environmental problem for some 5 or 6 years now – despite assurances given by the water companies that the issue has been rectified. Enforcement action by the European Commission is governed by Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). Article 279 of the TFEU, covering interim measures, may also be relevant here. Sometimes an ongoing breach of Treaty or legal obligations by a member state can cause serious, irreparable harm and (interim) measures may be required to prevent this. It should be appreciated that EU enforcement action could take several years before a judgment is issued and this is why the possible option of interim measures is so useful for the European Commission.
The UK Government has received a Letter of Notice from the European Commission which highlights alleged breaches of the EU Urban Waste Treatment Directive (Council Directive 91/271/EEC). At Whitburn in Sunderland, the European Commission has calculated that 300,000 tonnes of untreated sewage had managed to get into the water system in the period from January to August 2018.
The Independent article goes on to quote several Labour Party Members of the European Parliament who voice their fears about the very real prospect of declining environmental standards when the UK finally leaves the EU.
This is not the first time that the UK has got itself into bother with EU environmental protection laws (since victory of “Vote Leave” in the Referendum of 23 June 2016) as the link to an article in The Guardian from January 2018 demonstrates:
UK taken to Europe’s highest court over air pollution
This dispute over water quality may rumble on – even after Brexit – and there is the possibility of fines being imposed on the UK for failure to comply with the Urban Waste Treatment Directive. Some might ask why the UK would continue to be bound by the consequences of the Directive after Brexit? Well, it’s like any divorce: when you’re a party to a pre-existing, legally enforceable agreement, it doesn’t simply end upon dissolution of the marriage. This is perhaps something that we’re going to appreciate more fully when Brexit finally happens.
As Yannis Varoufakis, the Economist and former Greek Finance Minister, stated in September 2016: the EU is like the Hotel California (the 1976 song made famous by US rock group, The Eagles). “You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!”
So … for the moment, we’re definitely still in.
Copyright Seán J Crossan, February 2019