A series of “green crimes”, enforceable across the EU and punishable by prison sentences and hefty fines, are to be proposed under a contentious push by the European Commission into the sensitive area of criminal lawmaking.

The drive by Brussels to apply penalties for ecological crime reflects concerns that some countries treat offences such as pollution and illegal dumping of waste more seriously than others, allowing criminals to exploit loopholes.

The draft directive, seen by the Financial Times, lists nine offences ranging from illegal dumping of waste to the unlawful “taking or damaging” of protected wild flowers. It assigns minimum levels of punishment for the most serious crimes, such as those causing death. Many are already criminal offences in some EU nations, such as Britain.

According to the directive, offences such as serious pollution or unlawful transport of nuclear material should carry a sentence of two to five years. If death or criminal gangs are involved, it could reach 10 years.

Company directors could also be disqualified and companies forced to clean up if negligence is proved. They could be held criminally liable if national governments wish.

The action follows a European Court of Justice ruling in 2005. It sidesteps the historic right of national parliaments to decide what constitutes a crime and how it should be punished.

“Experience has shown that the existing systems of sanctions have not been sufficient to achieve complete compliance with laws for the protection of the environment. Such compliance can and should be strengthened by the application of criminal sanctions,” the directive says.

Stavros Dimas, environment commissioner, has seized on the court judgment that struck out an agreement between member states and ruled that environmental matters should be dealt with via harmonised procedures. They require the Commission to propose, the European parliament to debate and approve, and member states to vote by qualified majority.

Mr Dimas pushed the proposal after the dumping of toxic waste by a European ship in the Ivory Coast last year, which killed 10 and made hundreds ill. The Dutch government has launched a criminal probe of the company concerned, Trafigura, which denies wrongdoing. In Spain and Greece it would not have been a criminal offence to have dumped the waste illegally.

But the European Commission’s attempt to impose criminal law and minimum jail sentences on member states will provoke claims Brussels is trampling national sovereignty.

“The Commission is throwing down the gauntlet to member states,” said Scott Crosby,
a Brussels-based criminal lawyer. “They are bringing a taboo subject into the open,” he said, noting there had always been an implicit right for the EU to impose criminal sanctions.

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