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Parliament to strip green groups of legal clout

The Hardturm stadium in Zurich was at the centre of the row over the right of appeal

(Keystone)

A proposal to limit the right of environmental groups to appeal against building projects is due to come under scrutiny by the Swiss parliament later this week.

The political Right and the business community are fighting an existing law which they say blocks economic growth.

The issue came to the fore last year, when environmental groups appealed against a new football stadium in Zurich.

The stadium was seen as a key element for the 2008 European Football Championships, to be hosted jointly by Switzerland and neighbouring Austria.

The Transport and Environment Association in particular was accused of trying to wreck preparations for Euro 2008.

For years opponents have criticised laws dating back to 1966 and 1983 which allow environmental organisations to block building projects or demand changes to the plans.

More rigid terms

The proposal due to be debated by the Senate in the final week of its autumn session aims to simplify appeals procedures and define in more rigid terms the groups that qualify for the right of appeal.

The main criteria are that the organisation must be a national body, be non-profit-making and have public welfare goals.

To avoid possible abuses, the proposal by Zurich senator Hans Hofmann - a member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party - seeks a ban on out-of-court settlements between the person or company applying for a building permit and the organisation which lodged the appeal.

The costs of the proceedings would be borne by the organisation lodging the appeal, if the tribunal ruled against it.

No compromise

However, an alliance of 16 environmental groups, including Greenpeace, WWF Switzerland and Pro Natura-Friends of the Earth, has vowed to challenge the reform plans.

"The Hofmann motion will not help to simplify the appeal procedures," says Franziska Teuscher, a Green Party parliamentarian and president of the Transport and Environment Association.

"Making environmental organisations pay the costs of proceedings will put very tight limits on their ability to intervene on behalf of the environment.

"And banning out-of-court settlements will make it impossible to arrive at compromise solutions on which both parties can agree," Teuscher adds.

Her party is considering whether to challenge the legal amendment to a nationwide vote if it is passed by parliament.

"After all, no one has yet provided proof of any serious abuse of the right of appeal."

Radical initiative

Previous attempts to restrict the right of appeal have regularly been voted down in parliament.

But the centre-right Radical Party has been collecting signatures to force a nationwide vote in a bid to prevent appeals against all projects approved by popular vote or by a parliamentary assembly, whether at federal, cantonal or municipal level.

"There is sometimes a conflict between the right of appeal and the will of the people, as the case of Zurich has shown," says Fulvio Pelli, president of the Radical Party.

"This is reason enough to have a debate on the issue."

However, two distinguished professors of law, Georg Müller and the former Radical Party senator, René Rhinow, have harshly criticised the text of the initiative.

It would spell the end of the right of appeal for groups and organisations, both legal experts were quoted as saying in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.

swissinfo

Key facts

According to a study conducted by Geneva University, 8,768 appeals were heard by the Swiss Federal Court between 1996 and 2003.
Of these, only 84 were presented by environmental groups, with an annual average of 10.5 cases.
The success rate for appeals made under administrative law was 18.6%, while for environmental issues the figure was 63%.

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