Europe and Central Asia
8 Jun 2015

"Juncker will soon abandon this course", says Stanley Johnson

Italian dolomites © Gianfranco Goria, Flickr
By Luca Bonaccorsi

Messing with the Nature Directives is unnecessary and dangerous. Juncker will soon abandon this course”: Stanley Johnson interviewed.


If there is any such thing as a “father” to the Habitats Directive, the most ambitious piece of European legislation to protect species and habitats creating the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, he is Stanley Johnson (his son today, Boris, Mayor of London). Johnson Senior, age 75, former MEP, author and journalist, keeps campaigning for the environmental cause. We have spoken to him about the genesis of the directives in this political era in which President Juncker has announced the intention to “overhaul” and modernise the directive and possibly merge it with the Birds Directive to make them more “business friendly”. We have asked his opinion on Juncker’s plan.

Dear Mr Johnson, first let me ask you: how did you get such an ambitious and pervasive piece of legislation approved? It’s hard to imagine anything similar happening today.

Twentyfive or thirty years ago it was a different story. The Commission was very much in the driving seat. It wasn’t always looking over its shoulder. Even so, I was lucky. I had one of those old-fashioned Amstrads, with a dot-matrix printer. If you look at the original text of the Habitats Directive, the one in the archives, not the one they printed in the official journal, you’ll find that the English version – and that was the version I circulated to the other departments of the Commission – is clearly photocopied from my Amstrad original. You see, we didn’t have emails in those days: if you sent them a directive typed out on a machine that was quite incompatible with the machines they were using in their own departments, they’d have to retype the whole thing if they wanted to change it. The odds were they would simply wave it through. That’s exactly what they did.

Surely it wasn’t just a matter of printers. How did you get the political backing? When you first proposed it in 1987, Delors was President.

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Getting approval from the French wasn’t easy. I can remember being rung up one day by André Jacquot, the member of Delors’s Cabinet who was responsible for agriculture. Jacquot was apoplectic with rage. I could feel the spray even over the phone. He said Delors was going to block the Habitats and Species directive. They had already had enough trouble in France with the Birds Directive. French hunters had rioted when they were told they were no longer allowed to shoot their beloved Ortolan, or Bunting. “Your Habitats Directive is ten times worse - he fumed - you’ve got 40 pages of different animals to be protected. Ten pages of different habitats. Ça ne va pas. Ça ne vas pas du tout. Nous allons le bloquer”.

Then what happened?

Inspiration struck: “Okay - I said - we’ll leave all of the annexes blank, including the lists of habitats and species to be protected. These can be filled in later by a technical committee; un comité technique”. I could hear the pause at the other end. Basically, I was proposing that the Commission should just send the Parliament and Council a skeleton framework. From my point of view, this was better than nothing. Once the draft was on the table, once the text – any text – of a habitats and species directive had been sent to Parliament and Council, battle would at least have been joined. We could build up the pressure in the press and the media, and above all with the NGO community, to make sure that in due course meat was put back on the skeleton. Lots of meat. Organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) had already devoted resources to helping us produce a good draft. Alistair Gammell, for example, an RSPB official, was actually living in Brussels full time. Then there was Simon Lyster, who was working for WWF. Friends of the Earth fielded a strong team too, with Tony Juniper very much in the forefront.

So NGOs were not perceived as “enemies”

Not at all. And it wasn’t just a question of profiting from the technical proficiency of such men (and women). By involving them and their organisations at the drafting stage, we were – we hoped – helping to ensure the more formal support of their organisations at a later date.

Let’s go back to the political battle. What was Germany’s role?

At the time it was Claus Stuffman, a German, in charge of ‘nature protection’. I went to see him in his office. He looked gloomy. I don’t think he was looking for new ideas, not at that point. The Commission was finding it difficult to implement some of the measures that had already been agreed in earlier environmental action programmes. “We’ve got an EC Birds Directive already, Claus - I said - but that’s not enough. We need a directive covering all species and all habitats”. Claus didn’t really like the idea of an all-encompassing EU-wide Habitat and Species Directive, which was what I was proposing. Or, even if he did, he didn’t see how the member states would ever agree to such a measure.

And yet the draft set sail to the Parliament.

I pushed hard, I was lucky. A few days later, the skeleton directive, stripped of its vital annexes, was adopted by the Commission. I don’t think Delors’s Cabinet were at all pleased. I don’t think Delors himself was pleased. But they let it go through. The ensuing game of ping-pong between the Community institutions went on for years. The Parliament threw the directive back at the Commission, calling for the detail that we had been forced to leave out. The Commission in the end did what the Parliament asked. The Parliament, delighted to have had its way, with Hemmo Muntingh as the rapporteur who did a magnificent job of improving the text and actually tightening the provisions. He’s a great man and made a huge difference to Europe’s environment. Some five years after the Habitats Directive was first proposed, it was finally adopted by the Council. Natura 2000 was at last officially born.

Was it worth it to fight the battle in Brussels? Could you not have achieved the same at national level?

Today, around 18% of the territory of the EU’s Member States is designated as conservation areas. And these are not just paper parks. The directive provides for strict measures of protection. If the Member States don’t live up to their obligations, they can be – and are – taken to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. I know that in these Eurosceptic days, some people – including senior politicians – look askance at EU Directives, and wonder why we have to have them at all. My answer to that is that Member States, acting individually on their own, would never have managed to achieve the coherent network of protected areas that we now have under the Habitats Directive and which is known as Natura 2000. Either they wouldn’t have thought of it at all, or they would have failed to drive the measure through chez eux against the combined forces of inertia on the one hand and vested interests on the other.

Twenty years later President Juncker says the Birds and Habitats Directives are old and must be “overhauled and modernised”. What is your opinion?

I totally disagree, it is absolutely unnecessary and it’s a very dangerous course. One that will get abandoned very soon.

What makes you say that?

I think we will see coordinated action in Member States to make sure that does not happen. This dangerous project will be abandoned by President Juncker when people realise that modernisation is just a disguise for “weakening”. In my country, the UK, there was a review of the application of the Directives and the general conclusion was that there was no need to have a substanial re-jigging. I know the RSPB and others would rather see protection increased. I‘ll make sure I support their efforts. Clearly a lot more must be done on the marine front.

The European Union does not seem to very popular these days.

I know, but not when it comes to nature protection. The simple truth is that you just cannot deal with environmental issues at national levels.

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.