Popular support for regulation that works
Many commentators are suggesting that the EU is currently locked in the throes of an existential crisis as a result of the UK Brexit vote, and facing questions about what the EU should be, and how to “reconnect” with citizens across Europe. The focus of this debate has been predominantly on what economic measures the EU should take, but in the environmental field, there is now strong evidence that the EU has been delivering exactly what citizens want, even though most are unaware that the EU even has a role.
The UK referendum on EU membership highlighted the low levels of awareness among citizens about what EU does, and how it affects people’s daily lives. Indeed the search term, “What is the EU?” was Google’s second most popular EU-related question in the UK following the shock triumph of the Leave campaign.
This low level of awareness about what the EU does extends to environmental protection, including EU nature laws. Successive Eurobarometer surveys have shown that although the vast majority of EU citizens feel that protecting the environment is important to them personally, and most support decisions on the environment being taken jointly at EU level, very few have heard of the Natura 2000 network and know what it is.
At the same time debates at EU level about EU environmental laws, including Fitness Checks, have generally attracted low levels of interest from the public. The public consultation as part of the Fitness Check of the Water Framework Directive in 2012 attracted just 115 responses, while a public consultation on a proposed No Net Loss Initiative in 2014 attracted 723 answers.
In the context of the current economic crisis, policy debates about EU environmental legislation have tended to focus only on the “burden” regulation places on business, with little consideration of the benefits regulation delivers for citizens and wider society.
In the UK the Habitats Regulations Review was primarily concerned with the “ridiculous burden” nature conservation laws were alleged to place on business. The evidence demonstrated that this was unfounded, but the review focused on the views of informed and engaged businesses and stakeholder groups, not the views of the wider public. Indeed no public consultation took place as part of the review.
The Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directives echoed this framing, being launched as a political process to pave the way for weakening EU nature protection laws. However, the Fitness Check differed from the UK review in that a dedicated consultation of the wider public was envisaged as part of the process.
Of course, Jean Claude Juncker would have been justified in expecting a comparable public response to that generated by the Fitness Check of the WFD, but neither he, nor anyone else in the European Commission had anticipated the Nature Alert campaign, and the levels of public concern that would be generated.
The challenge set to BirdLife Europe, and to our NGO partners, EEB, WWF, and Friends of the Earth Europe by the Fitness Check, was to engage and enthuse our members, and citizens across Europe about two quite technical EU Directives, and encourage them to respond to a wordy, labyrinthine consultation document. All this to try to demonstrate that the laws that protect nature do matter to people everywhere.
Crucial to the efforts of the NGOs was developing an online tool to enable members of the public to respond to the consultation questionnaire, and coordinating our campaigning efforts across 28 member states, and hundreds of national partner organizations.
The results exceeded even our wildest expectations. Over 520,000 European citizens spoke up against weakening the Nature Directives through the Nature Alert campaign, smashing records for numbers of responses to previous consultations, and crashing a Commission computer system that had been specifically designed to cope with the anticipated large response.
Of particular note was that responses came from all EU28 Member States, and that over 100,000 of these responses came from the UK, demonstrating high levels of support for EU nature laws from British citizens.
Meanwhile the evidence-gathering consultation continued alongside, and support for the message that the Nature Directives are “fit for purpose” mounted up, in tandem with the rapidly growing numbers of responses. Initially the response from some senior Commission officials was to deny that this level of response represented anything other than “clicktivism”, but realization is growing that the results of the Fitness Check public consultation are a positive demonstration of public support for the “European Project”, at least in the environmental arena. Indeed, the consultation results were referenced by President Juncker in his State of the Union address in 2015.
The Nature Alert campaign has shown that although public awareness about what the EU does for the environment may be very low, when informed about the EU’s role in an area that they care about, European citizens are willing to stand up and support this action, in their hundreds of thousands.
At the same time, where citizens are not informed about the EU’s environment policies, or not given the opportunity to express their views, it is easy for the political debate to be swayed by calls for vital and popular environmental laws to be weakened.
Perhaps the lesson the EU should draw from the Fitness Check, and from the Brexit debate, is not that it should do more of X, or less of Y, but that it must better inform and engage with its citizens, so that they are not reliant on google to tell them “what is the EU?”