Europe and Central Asia
11 May 2015

Red herrings, Trojan horses and booby traps: debunking 5 myths and lies on the “need to overhaul” nature protection laws

By Ariel Brunner

Beneath a thin veil of “better regulation”, what is really happening is a concerted attack on nature conservation. Any reopening of the Birds and Habitats Directives would damage conservation. Anyone saying the opposite is either tragically naïve, or in seriously bad faith.

The European Commission is currently running a “fitness check” of EU nature legislation, an apparently harmless bureaucratic exercise that in reality could dismantle nature conservation in the EU. So now is the time for anyone who holds near and dear the future of Europe’s environment to carefully look at the facts, and then stand up for the laws of nature. Any reopening of the Birds and Habitats Directives would damage conservation. Anyone saying the opposite is either tragically naïve, or in seriously bad faith.

The Commission’s ongoing fitness check of the Birds and Habitats Directives asks some legitimate questions about the EU Nature Directives. Are they effective and efficient? Are they still needed? What is the cost benefit analysis? We at BirdLife have spent many months gathering studies, facts and figures, and the evidence is overwhelming. The EU nature directives are fit for purpose and doing their job. Despite often poor implementation by Member States, they are making a difference on a huge scale. We also know that if they were implemented more effectively, they could take us much further in the struggle to save our natural world. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, the final outcome of the fitness check still hangs in balance because the pressure to reopen the directives at all costs is huge. And this is why the conservation community is calling on all EU citizens who care about nature to act.

Before looking closely at the details, it is important that everyone be clear eyed about where the fitness check comes from and what it is meant to achieve. The fitness check is NOT an exercise whose purpose is to improve nature conservation. It is part of a REFIT process whose stated objective is deregulation. The only reason we have fitness checks is that powerful and openly anti-environment lobbies, such as Business Europe, have convinced the Commission that less legislation is “better regulation”. No matter how often Vice President Timmermans repeats that he has no intention to weaken the directives, he is still running a process that was born in sin. This does not mean that we cannot still turn this attack against nature into a step forward for conservation. But it does mean we are playing at a game that is rigged.

Having understood the nature of the game, it is worth looking closely at some of the red herrings, Trojan horses and booby traps that are being put forward by the anti-nature lobby. Here is a small selection.


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Aren’t the directives old? - No

Pollution controls need to be regularly updated as technology advances and improves. What was cutting edge technology yesterday is likely unacceptably dirty today. Nature protection is different. Methods of hunting that were unselective in the seventies are still unselective. Once the best sites for nature conservation are identified, they must be preserved forever, and not re-selected every now and then. And when a particular species achieves favourable conservation status, this is an ultimate goal that always stays valid.


Even if the directives are good, surely they should be further improved? - Surely not

Of course, any law can be improved. But this is an irrelevant question. The relevant question is: would conservation improve if we reopened the directives? The answer is clearly no. Reopening the directives would paralyze conservation for years. It would throw away the many years that have already been spent on site designation, on clarifying legal text through the European Court of Justice, on providing sector specific guidance to industry. Even assuming that the directives would be better at the end of the process, full implementation would take at least a decade. It is a much wiser investment to focus on improving implementation of what we already have.


Wouldn’t it make sense to merge the two directives? – No, it wouldn’t

This is the ultimate nonsensical red herring. The Habitats Directive was designed from the start to compliment and build on the Birds Directive. This choice was made precisely because it did not make any sense to pull down the Birds Directive and start over from scratch. The two directives are basically two floors of the same building. If the building is stable and functional, why send in the demolition squad?


Shouldn’t the annexes be brought in line with science? - Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

The annexes are not science; they are part of a societal compromise embedded in the legislation. Some of the annexes can be changed under the current legal text. But this requires agreement between the Member States, which is difficult to get. But why would it be easier to find agreement among the same Member States and the Parliament on a complete re-writing of the legislation? Most of the directives annexes cannot be amended without amending the directives themselves. It is a pipedream to think that the legislation would be opened, only to add a few species here or there, and that’s all. Once the directives are opened in the name of annex changes, every lobby in Europe will pounce and ask for exemptions, derogations and loopholes. Co-decision means that any MEP could table his amendment and any Member State could ask for preferential treatment.


Can’t we simplify implementation? - Yes we can, but only at the Member State level

Anyone who has actually bothered to read the Birds and Habitats Directives would have noticed that they are among the shortest, clearest and most elegant pieces of EU legislation. They do not set any detailed procedures, they hardly prescribe anything. They basically identify priority species and habitats, ask Member States to protect key sites, outlaw unselective killing methods and set a basic common sense framework for assessing and judging impacts on nature. You would be hard pressed to simplify this legislation without weakening it significantly. The complexities and contradictions are brought in by Member States who bungle up the implementation phase. There is a lot of useful work still to be done, with benefits both to nature and to responsible businesses.


“Better regulation” does not mean messing with legislation that already works. Rather, better regulation would be full implementation and strict enforcement of the Birds and Habitats Directives in their current form. Vice President Timmermans and Commissioner Vella have a grave responsibility on their shoulders. History will judge them harshly if they choose to put dirty interests before conservation.


The European Commission is asking whether the Nature Directives need to be reviewed. Make your voice heard by signing here.

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.