Logo gray

New EU Directive with tougher sanctions on environmental crime

In March 2024, the council (namely the agrifish council) formally adopted a directive on the protection of the environment via criminal law. This directive aims to enhance the detection and punishment of environmental crimes by setting forth minimum standards across the EU regarding the definition of criminal acts and the corresponding penalties, replacing the prior legislation from 2008. Notably, this directive solely pertains to offenses occurring within the EU; nevertheless, Member States have the option to broaden their jurisdiction to include offenses committed beyond their borders. The directive introduces two significant modifications: one involves broadening the range of offenses, while the other focuses on establishing sanctions and penalties for environmental crimes.

Accordingly, the scope of behaviors deemed as criminal offenses will expand from 9 to 20. Newly recognized offenses encompass activities such as timber trafficking, the illicit recycling of pollutants from ships, and significant violations of chemical legislation.  The directive contains a wide variety of penalties and sanctions. Member States will have the option to impose even stricter penalties in their domestic laws. Fines for companies will be at least 5% of their total worldwide turnover or alternatively EUR 40 million for the most serious offenses. For all other offenses, the maximum fine will be at least 3% of the total worldwide turnover or EUR 24 million as an alternative. In addition to the prison sentences and fines, Member States will have to make sure that natural persons and companies may be sanctioned by further measures such as an obligation for the offender to reinstate the environment or compensate for the damage, excluding them from access to public funding or withdrawing their permits or authorizations.

Given the fact that the protection of the environment is in the forefront of global priorities, the EU is adopting one of the world's most ambitious pieces of legislation to combat environmental crime. However, some critics say the EU did not go far enough, since by introducing a fixed amount of fines as an alternative for companies, absurd situations can happen where a multi-billion company's financial situation is not taken into account and only a fraction of their turnover has to be paid as a fine.

Once signed and published, the directive will enter into force, giving Member States two years to adapt their national rules to the directive.