Environment ministers from nine countries are being hauled to Brussels to answer questions about their failure to cut air pollution.

European Commissioner Vella will meet ministers from the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom at a special meeting on Tuesday 30 January.

EU air pollution limits are currently being broken in at least 130 cities in 23 countries, exposing European citizens to health-harming emissions that are particularly damaging to the most vulnerable in society such as children.

Welcoming the decision to host the meeting, Margherita Tolotto, EEB Policy Officer said

“People across Europe have a right to clean and healthy air, yet limits that were agreed in the 90s are still not being met. While we welcome Commissioner Vella calling in ministers from this ‘toxic bloc’ to explain themselves, this meeting must not come at the expense of infringement proceedings.”

The countries summoned to Brussels have all already been given ‘final warnings’ for their failures to implement EU laws on ambient air quality. If they are unable to prove that sufficient steps have been taken to bring their air quality into line with EU standards, they will be taken to the European courts to be forced into action.

According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution is responsible for almost 400,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. Air pollution is also linked to a range of health problems including cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, asthma and bronchitis.

Air pollution has a number of sources including the burning of fossil fuels, transport, agriculture and industrial activities. All of the countries taking part in the meeting still burn coal to generate electricity, although Italy and the UK have announced they will close their last plants by 2025.

In an unusually emotive blog post, European Commissioner Vella explained his decision to call the summit:

“It is no use telling the parent of a 7 year old child with chronic bronchitis that things will improve by 2030.  Much less telling the daughter of a 70 year old woman with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease that the air quality will be better in 10 years’ time.”

While the Commission’s decision to put air pollution at the top of the political agenda was welcomed by green groups, Tolotto stressed the importance of following the correct legal process to ensure that governments take action to clean up their air:

“We hope that 2018 will be the year that the EU finally takes the enforcement of air quality laws seriously – and that means further and quicker court action against persistent offenders.”