Britain will be hit with European Commission legal action for persistently ignoring EU rules on deadly air pollution, a breach which could result in huge fines from the bloc’s highest court.
The Telegraph has learnt that Britain is among the worst offending member countries that will be hit by new “infringement proceedings” and referred to EU judges in Luxembourg at the end of April.
The majority of infringement proceedings, used to ensure adherence to EU law, are resolved before the commission takes the step of referring the case to the lower General Court of the EU.
Which countries are to be targeted by the regular cycles of lawsuits are a closely-guarded secret but the Telegraph understands the UK is in the commission’s crosshairs after missing air quality targets for the last eight years.
If the UK still doesn’t curb harmful pollutants, which are linked to 400,000 early deaths in the EU and 40,000 in Britain every year, it could ultimately face either a large lump sum fine and a daily penalty in the European Court of Justice.
The exact sum is recommended by the European Commission, which is leading the Brexit negotiations on behalf of the EU, but is likely to cost the British taxpayers millions of pounds.
EU air quality rules demand countries cut exposure to harmful fine particulate matter, such as microscopic specks of dust and soot caused by burning petrol. There are also caps on emissions of particulate matter, ozone and nitrogen dioxide.
Breathing in the particulates can cause respiratory illnesses such as asthma and heart disease, especially in children.
While 23 of the bloc’s 28 member states fall short of the rules, Britain is among the worst offenders.
At the end of January, EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella called a meeting of ministers from the UK, Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia in Brussels.
On Monday, Mr Vella told MEPs in the European Parliament’s environment committee that a number of countries had failed the test.
“We will go ahead and refer these member states to the Court,” the Maltese commissioner said, “We have to take action.”
Without naming the countries, Mr Vella said he would ask that all EU commissioners back his recommendation at their weekly meeting at the end of April.
If they, as expected, back the call it will be the latest embarrassing humiliation for the British government over air pollution.
The government has already made legal history by losing three landmark cases in three years over air pollution to ClientEarth, a NGO of environmental lawyers.
Ugo Taddei, a ClientEarth lawyer, said taking Britain to the European Court of Justice was the only logical step for the commission.
“Our success in the UK’s High Court confirmed that the government is failing to comply with air quality laws – it would be remiss of the environment commissioner to falter now. The UK has had too many chances,” he said.
The most recent defeat was in the High Court in February and means ClientEarth can take the government back to court if it prepares an action plan to reduce pollution that does not go far enough.
The judge said the government’s plan to tackle pollution was “flawed” and “unlawful”.
A joint report by four select committees called for significant improvements to the 2017 Air Quality Plan. The unprecedented joint inquiry branded British air pollution a “national health emergency” and were scathing about the plan.
London broke its annual air pollution limits in February, just 31 days into 2018.
On 19 March this year, campaigners for a group called Stop Killing Londoners were arrested after spraying slogans on offices of London mayor Sadiq Khan.