ARCHIVE: EU thematic strategy for soil protection

At the EU Environment Council meeting on 20 December 2007, Environment Ministers were unable to reach political agreement on European Commission proposals for an EU Soil Framework Directive. It remains unclear if and when further work on these proposals will take place.

The Framework Directive was proposed on 22 September 2006 when the European Commission adopted the Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection.

Summary of negotiations from September 2006 – December 2007

The proposal for a Soil Framework Directive was considered by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers under the co-decision procedure (see background for further details).

Defra, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government held a public consultation exercise on the Commission’s proposals from July to October 2007 to help inform the UK negotiating position. A total of 88 responses were received to this from a range of sectors and on the whole, the conclusions drawn from these were consistent with the concerns set out in the Government’s initial Regulatory Impact Assessment.

As a result of the consultation and wider stakeholder discussions, the UK concluded that it could not support the text put to the December 2007 meeting of the EU Environment Council without further changes to bring it into line with the principles of better regulation and subsidiarity in order to avoid unnecessary additional administrative burden and disproportionate costs.

Despite the best efforts of the Portuguese Presidency (who issued a series of compromise texts on the Directive between September and December 2007), it was not possible for political agreement to be reached at Council. The UK joined France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands in indicating that the changes made by the Portuguese did not go far enough to resolve a number of outstanding issues.

It remains unclear how or when further work on these issues will be taken forward.

Content of the Soil Thematic Strategy

The overall objective of the Soil Thematic Strategy is to the protection and sustainable use of soil, based on the following guiding principles:

  • preventing further soil degradation and preserving its functions;
  • restoring degraded soils to a level of functionality consistent at least with current and intended use, thus also considering the cost implications of the restoration of soil.

A Framework Directive was proposed by the Commission as the best means of ensuring a comprehensive approach to soil protection.

Stakeholder engagement and lobbying

Ongoing stakeholder engagement was a central part of assessing the impact of the Directive from when the Commission released its proposals in September 2006 through to the Environment Council meeting in December 2007. As well as working with other government departments, the devolved administrations and stakeholders, we also worked with other Member States and MEPs to ensure that UK concerns were recognised.

We will continue to keep our stakeholders informed of any further developments on European soils policy.

Background

Early developments
The Council of Europe's European Soil Charter (1972) recognised the importance of the soil resource. Since then European countries have undertaken various activities to better protect their soil.

A workshop was held in Bonn in December 1998, to help determine the current status of soil conservation in Europe and to establish a platform for further soil protection activities. The workshop was well attended by representatives from EU Member States, EU accession countries and Norway and Switzerland.

Proposals for a Thematic Strategy
In response to concerns about the degradation of soils in the EU, and in accordance with the 6th Environmental Action Programme agreed between the European Council and Parliament, the European Commission adopted a Communication "Towards a Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection" in April 2002. This was supported by Member States, including the UK.

Five technical working groups, with representatives from Member States, were assembled to help develop the Thematic Strategy.

These groups examined three of the eight identified threats to soils - erosion, decline in soil organic matter and soil contamination, and they examined two cross-cutting themes - monitoring and R&D.

Working group final reports were published in April 2004.

An eight-week internet consultation open to all EU citizens on the proposals for a Soil Thematic Strategy took place during summer 2005 (closed 26 September 2005). Statistical results of the consultation are summarised on the European Commission's website.

Adoption of a Thematic Strategy and proposals for a Soil Framework Directive
Following the conclusions of these Working Groups and the consultation, the Commission proposed a Soil Framework Directive and also a non-legally binding  thematic strategy in September 2006. 

The proposal for a Soil Framework Directive was considered by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers under the co-decision procedure.

A first read through of the proposed Directive was completed at Working Groups under the German Presidency of the European Union (January-June 2007) and the dossier handed over to the Portuguese Presidency (July-December 2007).

The Portuguese produced a series of Presidency compromise texts during the latter half of their Presidency in attempt to address Member State comments and opinions. The Portuguese hoped to obtain political agreement on the dossier at the December 2007 Environment Council, however, this was not possible and the proposals were blocked.

The European Parliament - at first reading – voted, in November 2007, for a series of amendments to the Commission's proposals. They voted 395 votes to 225 not to reject the proposed Directive altogether, but adopted, by 501 votes to 160, a series of amendments which the Environment Committee rapporteur described as "a complete redraft of the original proposals".

UK stakeholder engagement
Throughout the process of negotiations UK government held a number of meetings and workshops with key stakeholders, as well as issuing a full 12-week public consultation on the Commission’s proposals.

Stakeholder workshops
The first stakeholder workshop was held in London on 17 May 2007 and sought preliminary stakeholder views on the proposed Directive which helped inform on-going negotiations at a European level. Approximately 60 organisations were represented at the workshop from Government Departments and Agencies, the devolved UK administrations, Non-Governmental Organisations, professional bodies, trade associations and companies, and academics.

Similar events were held in Scotland (8 June 2007) and Wales (2 July 2007), and the outcomes of these discussions were provided to Defra to  feed into the developing UK line. We will continue to keep stakeholders engaged as we proceed with negotiations.

Public consultation
Defra, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government carried out a public consultation exercise between July and October 2007 to assist in developing a robust UK negotiating position on the proposed EU Soil Framework Directive. Northern Ireland were not involved in the consultation.

The consultation sought views on  key overarching questions including the need for a EU Soil Framework Directive and also on the specific provisions and the costs and benefits set out in our initial Regulatory Impact Assessment.

Eighty-eight responses were received to this consultation from a range of sectors. On the whole, the conclusions drawn from these were consistent with the concerns set out in the Government’s initial Regulatory Impact Assessment.

Copies of the consultation document, Impact Assessment and summary of responses can be obtained from the Defra Soils Policy Team (email: soils@defra.gsi.gov.uk).

Page last modified: 15 January 2008
Page published: 1 September 2005