The European Commission is taking Estonia to Court over shortcomings in its legislation on access to information regarding the environment. Under EU legislation, Member States have to ensure that citizens have easy access to information on the environment held by public authorities. After assessing Estonia’s legislation in this area, the Commission concluded that it contained shortcomings, and despite several warnings, no action has been taken to improve it. The Commission is therefore taking Estonia to the EU Court of Justice.
The Commission’s concerns focus on a number of shortcomings in Estonia’s implementation. Under EU law, for example, there is an obligation to allow for a due process in case of refusal of information. This process weighs up the public interest in disclosure against the interest served by the refusal of a request. This requirement is absent from Estonian law. When requests are refused on the grounds that they concern material in the course of completion, such refusals must include the name of the authority preparing material which is not yet completed and the estimated time needed for its completion. This is also absent from Estonia’s law.
Estonia was sent a reasoned opinion about the matter in April 2013, and in its reply, Estonia agreed with the Commission on all points and committed to rectify the remaining shortcomings with amendments to the General Provisions of the Environmental Code in the fourth quarter of 2013. No changes have yet been notified to the Commission, however, so Estonia is now being called before the EU Court of Justice.
Under EU law, citizens are entitled to access to information about the environment they live in, and public bodies that hold that information have a duty to make it available, on the principle that disseminating such information will raise awareness about environmental matters, and encouraging effective public participation in environmental decision-making will eventually lead to a healthier environment. The legislation, which brings the EU into line with the Aarhus Convention, has a broad scope. “Environmental information” includes, for example, air, water, soil, land, coastal and marine areas and biodiversity, as well as policies, legislation, plans, programmes, environmental agreements, and activities likely to affect the environment. Cost-benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used in the framework of measures relating to the environment are also covered, as is the state of human health and safety, including the contamination of the food chain, insofar as they might be affected by the state of the environment.