The European Commission is providing national, regional and local actors with practical help to improve air quality in Europe. It is also targeting seven European Union member states – France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania and the United Kingdom – that have violated EU rules on air pollution limits and type approval for cars.

“The decision to refer Member States to the Court of Justice of the EU has been taken on behalf of Europeans,” said Commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella, on May 17. “We have said that this Commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. The member states referred to the Court today have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation.

“It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale,” added Vella. “But legal action alone will not solve the problem. That is why we are outlining the practical help that the Commission can provide to the national authorities’ efforts to promote cleaner air for European cities and towns.”

In turn, the European Union’s Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs Elżbieta Bieńkowska added: “We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the car sector plays its part. Zero emissions cars are the future. Meanwhile, complying with emissions legislation is a must. Manufacturers that keep disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing.”

The Commission decided to refer France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to the Court of Justice of the EU for failure to respect limit values for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and for failing to take appropriate measures to keep exceedance periods as short as possible. Hungary, Italy, and Romania are referred to the Court of Justice over persistently high levels of particulate matter (PM10). The limits set out under EU legislation on ambient air quality (Directive 2008/50/EC) had to be met in 2010 and 2005 respectively.

The Commission opened infringement proceedings against Germany, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom in December 2016 with regard to Volkswagen Group and sent complementary letters of formal notice in July 2017 requesting further clarifications.

In total, there are 16 infringement cases pending against Member States (Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Poland, Romania, Sweden, Slovakia, and Slovenia). Bulgaria and Poland have been found in breach of EU legislation by the European Court of Justice, in April 2017 and February 2018, respectively.

In response, the sustainable transport group Transport & Environment (T&E) welcomed the decision to take the six EU countries to court.

Julia Poliscanova, clean vehicles and air quality manager at T&E, said: “This long-overdue announcement shows governments they cannot go on allowing citizens to be poisoned by toxic air. Meeting air pollution limits is a legal obligation. Now it’s time to get tough on the main cause of the breach: the manufacturers of the 40m dirty diesel cars and vans still on Europe’s roads.”