The European Commission today announced that six EU governments will be sent to court for their persistent breaches of EU air quality laws. For the first time major Western European countries will be sent to the European Court of Justice for failing to meet EU limits on air pollution.

Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Romania and Hungary will all now need to explain themselves to judges in Luxembourg.

Campaigners welcomed the announcement and said that the Commission had had no choice but to act after years of delays and breaches on a “continental scale”.

Margherita Tolotto, Air Policy Officer at the EEB said:

“Everyone in Europe has the same right to clean air, and when national governments fail to deliver EU protections, it’s right that the European Commission steps in to protect us from the air we breathe.”

Tolotto said that there was a compliance crisis with EU air quality rules being broken all over Europe. She added that local campaigners in towns and cities across Europe would welcome the Commission’s action, saying: “Sending governments that fail to follow EU laws to court is an essential part of the Commission’s role as the watchdog of European law.

EU air quality limits are breached in more than 130 cities in 23 of the 28 Member States and the European Environment Agency (EEA) links air pollution to 400,000 premature deaths every year. Poland and Bulgaria have already been found guilty of failing to take sufficient action to tackle air pollution and been ordered to take additional steps.

According to the EEA’s most recent verified data, 19 countries are still breaching nitrogen dioxide (NO2) limits, which are set on an annual basis, and 14 are breaching annual permitted daily exceedances for particulate matter (PM10).

The Commission’s infringement proceedings have focused on some of the worst offenders.

While urban air quality breaches are often linked to dirty diesel cars, big coal-fired power stations pump baseload pollution into the air across Europe. In Eastern Europe, where people’s home are also often heated by coal or other dirty fuels, serious investments are required to improve heating systems and insulate homes.

The Commission sent Germany, the UK and France to the court for breaching limits on NO2, while the cases against Hungary, Italy, Romania are linked to breached PM10 limits.

Air pollution is linked to various respiratory health problems including asthma and bronchitis and increased concentrations of toxic pollutants has been linked to increased mortality and morbidity.

Yesterday Commissioner Vella raised expectations yesterday when he tweeted that today would be a “big day” for clean air in the EU.

The European Commission has been increasing pressure on member states to take action to clean up their air. In January, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella hosted nine ministers at a special meeting in Brussels to discuss ongoing breaches of EU laws.

Following that meeting ministers were invited to submit “credible, timely and effective” measures to cut air pollution. The EEB assessed five of these proposals earlier this week and declared they were “too little too late” to avoid court.

However, the Commission decided not to send Spain, Slovakia and the Czech Republic to court today. A decision that Tolotto says it is important to explain:

“We now need to understand why some governments but not others have been sent to court today. Citizens deserve to know what is being done to protect them from polluted air. The process behind these infringement actions should be far more transparent.”

Today’s announcement comes after months of delays and in some cases more than a decade of limits being breached. The announcement had been expected last month, before Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was blamed for another month’s delay.