Europe and Central Asia
22 Jan 2015

The Birds and Habitats Directives: reviewing or butchering?

© Derek Lawlor
By Wouter Langhout

The Fitness Check will be the moment when the enemies of nature conservation will wake up and will seek to weaken the legislation for their narrow interests, to the detriment of Europe’s citizens.

This year the European Commission is carrying out a “Fitness Check” of the Birds Directive (2009/147/EC) and Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) as part of its ongoing Regulatory Fitness and Performance (REFIT) initiative. The REFIT initiative focuses on reducing ‘regulatory burden’, so as to meet EU policy and regulatory goals at least cost and best achieve the benefits of EU regulation. “Fitness Checks” are comprehensive evidence-based policy evaluations that are intended to identify excessive administrative burdens, overlaps, gaps, and inconsistencies.

The Fitness Check will include online consultations and interviews with stakeholders across the EU-28 planned for the first half of 2015. Initial findings will be presented at a stakeholder conference in September 2015, with a final report envisaged in early 2016.

The Birds Directive and Habitats Directive together form the cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation policy. They have provided valuable protection for Europe’s rarest and most threatened habitats and species and have also played an important role in securing vital ecosystem services. The Directives are the basis of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites that covers over 17% of Europe’s landmass, and protects some of our most iconic wildlife sites. Scientific evidence has shown that birds such as White-tailed eagle and Great bustard have benefitted from the Birds Directive. Their proper implementation will be required if we are to meet national, European and international commitments to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

However, in many Member States implementation remains far from complete, and investment in conservation action is woefully inadequate. These failings are an ongoing barrier both to nature conservation and to business. For example the failure by several Member States to identify and designate marine protected areas is severely impacting the offshore renewable energy sector. Businesses such as CEMEX, and Heidelberg Cement, have publicly acknowledged that the Directives do not constitute a barrier to progressive businesses, but rather value the certainty that the Directives provide.

The Fitness Check will be the moment when the enemies of nature conservation will wake up and will seek to weaken the legislation for their narrow interests, to the detriment of Europe’s citizens. Be aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing, which under the veil of modernization try to go back to 1970s, where economic development was at the expense of nature and the health and well-being of Europe’s citizens, and the destruction of nature sites was commonplace.

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In this context it is perhaps helpful to consider the experience of the UK, which carried out its own review of national implementation of the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive. The UK review found that, “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.”

A recent Eurobarometer survey found that 95% of Europeans feel personally connected to the environment, and 77% support EU environmental laws. The challenge is to make sure that Mr. Vella and Mr. Juncker also realise just how effective, efficient and popular the Directives are when it comes to saving nature.

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. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.