Europe and Central Asia
31 Mar 2017

Nature needs Action (Plan) Heroes

(c) Dagmar Cohnen
By Raphael Weyland

If the European Commission wants to prove its democratic legitimacy, it would be wise to deliver on its promise to ensure better implementation and enforcement of the hugely popular Birds and Habitats Directives. Its new ‘Action Plan for Nature, People and the Economy’ is a crucial litmus test in these unsure times. 

The snowdrops and crocuses are in bloom – living mosaics of colour signalling that spring has officially sprung here in Brussels. It’s a timely reminder from nature, telling us to wake up from our winter hibernation and ‘spring’ back into action. Because that’s precisely what nature, and indeed Europe, needs right now – action heroes. Or to be more precise, ‘Action Plan’ heroes!

The plan in question is the European Commission’s ‘Action Plan for Nature, People and the Economy’ – a roadmap identifying the crucial next steps in follow-up to the recent Fitness Check of the EU Nature Directives. This is a work in progress, open to stakeholder input until mid-2017. As such, the next few months will provide a strong gauge of how seriously the European Commission takes its ‘Better Regulation’ initiative, its biodiversity strategy and its promises…

Two years ago, the watering down of Europe’s vital nature laws was widely considered to be a fait accompli, a battle that was sure to be lost in the mire of behind-the-scenes bureaucracy. But the sceptics were proved wrong. Thanks to the Nature Alert! campaign – steered by BirdLife, WWF, Friends of the Earth and the EEB – the tables were turned by an unprecedented level of support from business, scientists, environment ministers, Members of the European Parliament, European Commissioners and, of course, the public. Half a million European citizens made a stand, declaring their support for wildlife and the environment in a public consultation on the directives.

And their voices were heard: on 7 December last year, the College of Commissioners unanimously voted to uphold the Nature Directives. Afterwards, President Juncker promised to continue the work on this issue, establishing a project team and an inter-service task force charged with developing an ‘Action Plan’. This plan will include contributions from Commissioner Karmenu Vella and Vice Presidents Frans Timmermans and Jyrki Katainen, whose collegial portfolios respectively mirror the ‘Nature, People and Economy’ of its title.

In the last days of the Nature Alert campaign, BirdLife published a cartoon on the front page of the Luxembourger Wort; here we cast President Juncker as the famous literary hero D’Artagnan and asked him to be the hero that nature needs. And now we call upon Commissioners Vella, Timmermans and Katainen to serve as ‘The Three Musketeers’ – to swear to honour and protect the Nature Alert legacy and rally behind better implementation of the directives.


'The saving of the Nature Directives was not just a win for the issues at hand, it was a victory for democracy and, in turn, a much needed victory for Europe in uncertain times.' 


We have some concrete, scientifically-based proposals[1] for how to go about this. The best part is that the Commission’s own studies soundly[2] echo what we and other environmental NGOs have been saying for a long, long time: both the Birds and Habitats Directives are highly relevant and ‘fit for purpose’, but their effectiveness has been constrained by the lack of funding, poor management plans and weak enforcement measures that utterly fail to deter legal breaches.

BirdLife proposes stepping up implementation with concrete guidance in the field of species protection and stepping up enforcement by increasing the resources of infringement handling units and the use of new instruments such as Copernicus or the long-discussed Inspection Regulation to assure compliance with EU law. We call on the Commission to focus on delivering additional funding through the Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF) and to finally realise the idea of a Trans-European Network for Green Infrastructure (TEN-G).

We also identify the clear need to integrate the goals and requirements of the directives within other key policy domains and avoid competing – and in some cases, conflicting incentives. The Common Agricultural Policy is a case in point: its system of direct payments actively encourage agricultural practices that destroy rural habitats and farmland biodiversity. The Commission is currently holding a public consultation on the future of the CAP (open until 1st May) – this is a golden opportunity for the public to tell Europe’s leaders that better implementation of the Nature Directives means that we need food and farming system that is sustainable from field to fork.

The saving of the Nature Directives was not just a win for the issues at hand, it was a victory for democracy and, in turn, a much needed victory for Europe in uncertain times. If the Commission deliver on their promises, if the directives are truly properly implemented, then the European Union will deserve the support of the huge number of civil society organisations and citizens who so desperately want to maintain belief in this dream called Europe. So musketeers of the Commission, draw your pens – for they are indeed sharper than the sword – and write the spirit of ‘All for Nature, Nature for all!’ into what it means to be European.



Raphael Weyland is EU conservation policy officer for NABU (BirdLife Germany)

This article was originally published by Euractiv on 22 March 2017.

[1] BirdLife Contribution to the drafting process of the Action Plan drafting.

[2] Staff Working Document published the 16 December 2016 and Expert Study commissioned by DG Environment.

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.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on the ECA section of this website are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.