The EU’s top court ruled Thursday the European Commission can order member states to cut down healthy olive trees to stem the spread of damaging bacteria after Italian authorities halted a controversial felling programme in December.
The bacteria concerned, Xylella fastidiosa, is not harmful to humans but can be deadly for olive and orange trees, vines and other plants, and there are fears an outbreak in southern Italy could spread to other European Union countries such as France or Spain.
The Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice said the Commission “may require member states to remove all plants capable of being infected by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, even when there are no symptoms of infection, when such plants are in the vicinity of plants already affected.”
“That measure is proportionate to the objective of protecting plant health in the European Union and is justified by the precautionary principle,” it said in a statement.
Commission spokesman Enrico Brivio welcomed the court’s ruling as “important to give clarity and to achieve and maintain a high level of plant health protection.”
He said felling was “the most effective available option to ensure the eradication of this harmful organism.”
“We expect that the Italian authorities will apply the measures that were decided.”
The Commission is pressing Rome to destroy infected trees and those within 100 metres (yards) in an effort to control the spread of the disease.
The worst affected region is Puglia in southern Italy where it is estimated some 10 percent of its 11 million olive trees could be cut down.
Gianni Cantele, the local president of farmers organisation Coldiretti, said the court’s ruling was the latest “dramatic step” in a sorry tale.
“The EU is acting like Pontius Pilate, washing its hands of the problem and chucking the hot potato back to the Italian government and the region,” he said, in a reference to an ongoing battle over compensation payments to the affected producers.
Local prosecutors managed to halt the felling in December, arguing there was no proof of a clear link between the bacteria and the drying out of thousands of olive trees, many of them hundreds of years old.
The court hearing their submission agreed to a halt but also decided to refer the issue to the ECJ, asking it to rule on whether the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, was acting within the law.
“By today’s judgement … the Court confirms the validity of the Commission’s decision,” the ECJ said.