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EU gives countries 10 days to present measures improving air quality

Brussels – The European Commission has called on nine EU member states to present new measures lowering air pollution by the end of next week, or else face legal action, after summoning their ministers to Brussels.

Britain, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia are all one step away from being taken to court for breaching EU air pollution limits. Tuesday's meeting was billed as a final chance for them to say how they would tackle the issue.

400,000 Europeans die prematurely due to poor air quality

Every year, more than 400,000 Europeans die prematurely due to poor air quality, which triggers conditions such as asthma, heart disease and lung cancer, according to EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, who convened the talks. One of the main pollutants in cities is vehicles, especially those running on diesel fuel.

The ministers had made "some positive suggestions," Vella said after the meeting. But at first sight these were "not substantial enough to change the bigger picture," he added.

He gave them until Monday to present any new measures, although the commission later specified that member states should "finalize their submissions by the end of next week on how they intend to comply with EU law on air quality, or else face legal action."

"We are not yet where we need to be"

German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks said her country had already made progress, with the number of cities in breach of EU nitrogen oxide limits falling from 90 to 70 last year.

But by 2020, air pollution in 20 German cities would still exceed EU limits, Hendricks said following the Brussels talks, adding that she had requested more time for Germany to comply.

"Of course we are not yet where we need to be," the minister said, noting that it was "quite possible" that Germany would be brought before the European Court of Justice for its air quality lapses.

France has about 15 regions where pollution regularly exceeds EU limits, said French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, noting that this was the result of "past choices" that must be reversed quickly to ensure citizens could breathe clean air.

"Clean Air Now"

During the talks, activists from the environmental campaign group Greenpeace protested outside the European Commission with banners demanding "Clean Air Now."

"Car fumes are killing tens of thousands across Europe," said Benjamin Stephen of Greenpeace, accusing governments of failing to take the necessary steps to meet air pollution limits. "That is criminal, and should be penalized," he added.