European Commission brings Ireland to court over EU water directive ‘failure’

Department of Heritage says new Act addresses European concerns over legal shortcomings

The European Commission is to bring Ireland to the European Court of Justice for failing to correctly transpose the EU water framework directive into national law.

It was one of three findings against the Government reached on Thursday for significant environmental failures; the others were inadequate prevention and management of invasive alien species; and failure to adequately reduce air pollutants, notably ammonia emissions arising from agriculture.

The water directive establishes a framework for protecting inland surface waters, transitional waters, coastal waters and groundwater by preventing their further deterioration, preventing pollution as well as protecting and enhancing water-dependent ecosystems and water resources.

It requires all inland and coastal waters “reach at least good status by 2027 at the latest”. To achieve this, member states were required to establish river basin management plans and programmes with measures.


“This is an important aspect of the European green deal’s zero pollution ambition, aiming for water pollution to be reduced to levels no longer considered harmful to human health and natural ecosystems,” the commission noted.

Member states were required to transpose the directive into national law by December 2003. Ireland initially adopted legislation but the commission deemed it insufficient.

While Ireland adopted new amending legislation, it did not resolve the matter. “Despite some progress and the adoption of new legislation in June 2022, the Irish authorities have not yet fully addressed the grievances, over 20 years after the entry into force of this directive,” it said.

Ireland’s transposing law still needs to provide for appropriate controls in “water abstraction, impoundment and activities causing hydro-morphological changes such as dams, weirs and other interferences in natural water flow”.

The commission acknowledged a new Water Environment Bill outlined last September. The memo accompanying it stated its aim was to answer the commission’s infringement with regard to creating new powers to control water abstraction and impoundment activities. But the commission said: “It is not clear how long it will take for full compliance to be achieved.”

The department of Housing said the Water Environment Act 2022 was signed into law on December 23rd. Upon commencement, “this will address a large proportion of the remainder of the concerns raised in the additional reasoned opinion. The department is currently in preparation to formally notify the commission of the publication of this Act,” a spokesman said.

“These steps substantially respond to the issues raised by the commission in the infringement case against Ireland. The department is committed to ensuring a robust legislative framework is established and in place to protect and enhance our water environment, in line with the requirements of the directive,” he added.

The commission also decided to refer Ireland to the Court of Justice for failing to implement various provisions in EU regulations on invasive alien species – plants and animals accidentally or deliberately introduced to an area where they are not normally found.

Invasive species are a big cause of biodiversity loss in Europe, causing an estimated damage of €12 billion per year to the European economy.

Ireland with five other member states “did not establish, implement and communicate to the commission an action plan (or a set of action plans) to address the most important pathways of introduction and spread of these invasive alien species”, the commission said.

Member states are obliged to take effective measures to prevent the intentional or unintentional introduction of these species into the EU, to detect them and take rapid eradication measures or, if the species are already widely established, to take measures to eradicate, control or prevent them from spreading any further.

Invasive species can also be a big problem for human health, triggering serious allergies and skin problems such as burns caused by the giant hogweed and acting as vectors for diseases affecting animals and humans.

The department said the National Parks and Wildlife Service was working on implementing a number of priority action plans, in line with Ireland’s obligations under EU regulations. The first three pathways identified as a priority for Ireland were on angling; recreational boating and watercraft; and movement of soil and spoil.

Ireland’s response to the escalation of the infringement by the commission would be considered carefully in the context of progress made on implementation of the first two plans and the finalisation of the third, it added.

Having analysed national emission inventories submitted in 2022, the commission urged Ireland to reduce emissions of several air pollutants. Member states are required to establish national air pollution control programmes to show how these reduction commitments will be met. The European Green Deal, with its zero pollution ambition, puts emphasis on cutting air pollution, which is among the key factors negatively affecting human health.

Ammonia stemming from agriculture is the pollutant for which most of these member states do not comply with their obligations, it noted. The Government has two months to respond and address shortcomings that have been raised. In the absence of a satisfactory response, the commission may then decide to issue “a reasoned opinion”, it confirmed.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times