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The European Commission announced on Thursday (17 May) the launch of legal action against six member states accused of breaking air pollution limits.

Other nations including France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania - which had all previously been given a final warning - have also been referred to court for breaching pollution levels.

The EU introduced limits for particulate matter (PM10) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in 2010. "It is my conviction that today's decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale". The European Environment Agency said in October 2017 that fine particulate matter causes more than 400,000 premature deaths in the EU annually.

ClientEarth, the environmental campaign group which has led three successful legal challenges against the government's air quality plans in the United Kingdom courts, as well as a string of cases in Europe has called on the Commission to "swiftly" pursue justice in each case.

Germany's automakers, in particular the Volkswagen Group, which sold millions of emissions-rigged diesels, have been dragging their feet over retrofitting the affected cars to make them cleaner.

The Commission said the measures proposed by the EC rest on the three main pillars of air quality standards, national emission reduction targets, and emission standards for key sources of pollution from vehicle and ship emissions to energy and industry.

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Commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella said: "The decision to refer Member States to the Court of Justice of the EU has been taken on behalf of Europeans".

The UK government has been summoned to Europe's top court for its repeated failure to clamp down on air pollution. The problem was declared a public health emergency by a cross-party committee of MPs in 2016. But legal action alone will not solve the problem. If it does not, the court can then impose large fines.

The decision fires the starting gun on a race to bring Britain back in line with air pollution limits before European Union judges in Luxembourg impose hefty fines in the form of a daily penalty or lump sum.

The four countries now have two months to reply before further infringement action will be taken.

Elżbieta Bieńkowska, industry commissioner said: "We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the auto sector plays its part".