The European Commission has been alerted. Now for the hard part
President Jean-Claude Juncker’s mandate to Commissioner Karmenu Vella to look into “merging and modernising” the Birds and Habitats Directives has had the effect of a bombshell in the European nature conservation community and has galvanized one of the most extraordinary public mobilisations of recent years.
As the Nature Directives Fitness Check nears the moment of truth, the case is an open and shut one. There is no rational case for tampering with the legislation, while there is an overwhelming case to get serious about properly implementing it. 2016 could be the turning point year for nature in Europe, one way or the other.
Much of BirdLife’s time and energy in 2015 have gone into the fitness check. We spent the early months of the year alerting the conservation community to what was going on, gathering every available scrap of data and information on the working of the Directives and gearing up to mobilise public opinion. These efforts culminated with the launch of the NatureAlert campaign, jointly with the European Environmental Bureau, WWF and Friends of the Earth Europe. We asked citizens to respond with a resounding ‘no’ to the Commission’s public consultation on whether the EU nature laws should be opened for revision (and possible weakening).
What followed went beyond anyone’s expectations. Those who hoped that EU nature conservation laws could be quietly done away with were in for a nasty surprise. For those working hard to ensure a living future for our continent and our planet, it brought new hope.
The Commission’s massive evidence-gathering exercise has vindicated our positions all around. It found no evidence for significant flaws in the legislation. It did however find massive law breaking across the EU, uneven implementation by Member States and a clear failure to fund conservation. Most ominously, it found conservation efforts and legal protection overshadowed by highly damaging subsidies flowing out of other policies, notably the EU’s morally bankrupt Common Agricultural Policy.
European citizens have spoken clearly; with more than half a million responses, the biggest ever response to a Commission consultation, they overwhelmingly supporting our stand. NGOs have shown a rare level of unanimity. More interestingly, we received support from a broad set of stakeholders and businesses, from the cement industry to anglers, grid operators to local authorities.
Then 10 environment ministers came on board, quickly followed by the biodiversity leads for all the political groups in the European Parliament. It all came together with an extraordinary force at the Commission’s stakeholders’ conference in November.
So what next? The Commission is expected to formally table its conclusions in the spring of 2016 and to come up with concrete proposals for further action later in the year. At this point, a decision to reopen the Directives would be an outrage. We are confident that Commissioner Vella and first Vice President Frans Timmermans would never take such a foolish decision against the combined weight of evidence, public opinion and political support.
The real question is whether they will find the courage to actually address the many problems that the fitness check has brought to light. This is the moment of truth, and also the golden opportunity to show that they really are after building a better Europe and not just trying to appease a handful of polluting interests.
Here is a blueprint of what we expect from them:
- Bring a steep change in enforcement. This means boosting the Commission’s ability to police the common rules and ensure a level playing field. Bring to Europe the satellite technology that is revolutionising conservation in other parts of the world. Bring forward new legislation to ensure access to justice for citizens and adequate inspection regimes in Member States.
- Modernise implementation by improving the governance and guidance that underpins the daily works of the Directives, helping Member States and stakeholders cooperate to ensure smart implementation that can harmoniously combine conservation and economic activity.
- Open a serious debate on funding. The so-called integration approach (funding of biodiversity through ‘mainstreaming’ it into other EU sector funds, rather than allocating a sum to a dedicated fund) has broadly failed, so a new model must be proposed and actively pursued.
- Address the biodiversity crisis in agriculture by subjecting the Common Agricultural Policy to the same type of rigorous fitness check process that the Nature Directives have gone through in order to identify what needs to be urgently improved.