Europe and Central Asia
3 Jun 2015

EU’s Biodiversity Strategy – Halfway there?

By Wouter Langhout

Biodiversity is the lifeblood of this planet. It’s the variety of life that exists on earth, and each species, no matter how small, plays an important role. Yet many are struggling to survive and face the threat of extinction. The EU’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 is the European Commission’s 10 year master plan for taking action against all key drivers of biodiversity loss to protect Europe’s critical habitats and species. Halfway to 2020, BirdLife’s Mid-term Assessment Report takes a very close look at where Europe stands today.

When look at things broadly, the EU doesn’t get a very good grade. It’s true that some species that were disappearing, like beavers, cranes, wolves, and eagles, have started coming back over the last decades. This is largely in thanks to EU nature legislation, called the Birds and Habitats Directives, which are the cornerstone of nature protection in Europe. But it is also clear that we are failing and far from halting biodiversity loss because many plants and animals are still threatened with extinction. More than 20% of the species and more than 30% of the habitats protected under EU nature laws are worse today when compared to the 2010 baseline. What’s going on? Well, it’s certainly not because we don’t have the laws. It’s because like all tools, they just don’t work when not used properly. And this is exactly what has been happening in some Member States, for example, when it comes to the illegal killing of birds or destruction of Natura 2000 sites. These Member States have been ignoring legislation and are not held accountable for this. Another major problem is the lack of financial resources at Member State and EU levels that is absolutely necessary to make the management of Natura 2000 sites happen on the ground.

What we know is that farmlands have become an ecological disaster. Natural grasslands are disappearing everywhere and industrial scale farming is becoming more and more common in Europe. As a sad result, more than half of our farmland birds have been lost since 1980. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy could have been an effective tool to tackle this, but it simply fails to deliver. In the latest reform, it promoted the idea of setting a small part aside for nature on each farm, known as an Ecological Focus Area. This could have had huge potential in preserving biodiversity by saving just a little bit of space for wild plants and animals. But the initial concept was watered down to such an extent it is easy to predict that nothing will happen on most farms. Another opportunity missed was stricter protection of environmentally sensitive grasslands. Unfortunately, many Member States have not taken this seriously and very few designated all grasslands in Natura 2000 areas as environmentally sensitive. The mix of insufficient basic legislation and Member States not going beyond this legislation in their implementation will also make this CAP reform a wasted opportunity for nature.

In the case of invasive alien species, the non-native species that have been brought intentionally or accidentally to countries in the EU, they are on the rise across Europe. They often become major invaders, outcompeting and displacing our natural plants and animals, causing not only damage to nature but our health and economy. The EU has created a new regulation to tackle the enormous challenges they pose, but over the next five years the EU must make the best use this tool or else this will only be another empty exercise.

What about our seas? The EU’s freshly reformed law for fisheries management, the Common Fisheries Policy, does at least set out a vision to turn the tide. However, a lot will depend on whether the EU has the backbone to turn the vision into a reality. Laws adopted to implement the policy must ensure that overfishing is stopped and that fishing activities are adjusted so that they do not lead to the incidental death of thousands of seabirds, other marine animals, and destroy the marine seabed floor, or else there really is no point in legislative reform.

We are halfway to 2020 with much left to do, but we can now use BirdLife’s Mid-term Assessment Report to take actions that turn the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy into a success for biodiversity and nature.  

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Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.