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On the way to ‘zero pollution’ in Europe

With the European elections in May this year and the appointment of Ursula von der Leyen as the president-elect of the Commission, new times are dawning in Brussels. Von der Leyen wants Europe to become more sustainable. The goal: zero pollution. This is to be achieved thanks to an interdepartmental strategy that addresses water quality as well as hazardous substances, industrial emissions, pesticides or endocrine disruptors.

EurEau shares the view that the goal of ‘zero pollution’ in Europe belongs at the top of the political agenda. The principles of precaution, prevention and the polluter-pays, as set out in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, are hardly applied in reality. The idea that in water supply one can ideally make use of drinking water resources that do not need to be treated at all or that can be processed to drinking water using natural or near-natural methods only is absolutely correct, but often enough a utopia.

The new Commission’s commitment to protecting the environment is motivating, as it gives an impetus to improving and aligning existing legal acts in environmental, agricultural and chemicals policy in such a way that dangerous substances are not permitted in the first place. The ‘control-at-source’ approach must become effective. It is often only a matter of time when mobile substances, in particular, reach the water cycle – currently an occasion to address the fact that, in the REACH Regulation, not only the persistence, bioaccumulation and toxicity of substances, but also their mobility should lead to the exclusion of marketing.

In the recent past, it has been possible to establish strict exclusion criteria for the authorisation of plant protection products and biocides. In the medium term, water monitoring will show whether or not these requirements for new active substances are also a way to achieve zero pollution. In any case, great efforts are needed to achieve zero pollution of water resources through human and veterinary pharmaceuticals. The lack of acceptance in the pharmaceutical industry of taking responsibility for the entire life cycle of their products in the environment is a permanent issue. The strategic concept of the EU Commission on that topic published in May 2019 falls far short of expectations. It describes only vaguely that the Commission plans to consider an extended responsibility of pharmaceutical manufacturers for water treatment. We want to see more producer responsibility in the European legal framework in the future.

Zero pollution – also an issue for the impact of intensive agriculture on water resources. There has been discussion for many years, but the rays of hope are sparse. The drafts for the future Common European Agricultural Policy presented by Agriculture Commissioner Hogan in June 2018 have further developed the concept of ‘greening’, i.e. giving a remuneration to farmers based on concretely provided environmental services – an initiative that has so far been unenforceable in Parliament and also by many national governments. European agricultural policy must be closely linked to the objectives of the Water Framework Directive and the requirements of the Drinking Water Directive. Financial support from the EU’s largest single budget – yes, but only if agricultural practice makes a measurable contribution to environmental and health protection.

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