Europe and Central Asia
5 Jun 2015

Traveling through time, with and without, the Nature Directives

Wolf cubs © Patries 71, Flickr
By Ariel Brunner

Birds shot from August to May, wolves and goshawks considered vermin and exterminated without a second thought. Insects, frogs and turtles ignored. Just 5% of Europe’s landscape protected… welcome to Europe. Before the Nature Directives.

Let’s do a little mental experiment to better grasp the challenge that the European Commission has thrown against European nature conservation through its “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives. We’ll do this by looking at how things were before the directives, and how things might look under various possible outcomes. The conclusion is clearly a choice between the life and death of much of our natural world.

First, go back to the “good” old days, before the EU started getting involved with Member States’ nature conservation. Birds were hunted legally from August to May, during spring migration and while attempting to nest, either shot, trapped or glued helplessly to trees. Predators, from wolves to goshawks, were considered vermin and exterminated without a second thought, often with government incentives. Insects, frogs and turtles weren’t even on the radar of the few nature conservation laws in place. And what about protected areas? They covered less than 5% of Europe’s landscape, and were mostly limited to the remotest and wildest corners of each country, often selected on the basis of iconic landscapes and historical accidents rather than targeting sites that were richest in biodiversity. During this time, we even lacked the most basic understanding of what we were losing. But we were losing a great deal; one only has to think of wetlands, 2/3 were destroyed and lost during the 20th century alone.

Now fast forward to the present. Today, almost 20% of the EU landscape enjoys legal protection under the Natura 2000 Network, and while many of these places are still being degraded and sometimes destroyed illegally, many others are starting to be managed in a more sensible way. Hunting has become much more sustainable, and if poaching remains rampant in some areas, we at least have the legal weapons to try and bring it under control. Our knowledge of biodiversity has increased in leaps and bounds, and with it, the understanding that conservation is not just about the moral imperative of saving millions of years of evolution from the rapacious greed of one short generation. It is also about bequeathing our children a livable and healthy planet, one that is worth living on. How was this all possible? The Nature Directives.

And what sort of future can we foretell for our nature? Well, this really depends on which path we choose to travel.

One road leads to Commissioner Vella and Vice President Timmermans executing President Juncker’s demand to “merge and modernise” the Birds and Habitats Directives. What ensues is years of wrangling as new legal text is fought over, first inside the Commission, then within the European Parliament and the Council. Conservation work gets paralised as national authorities wait to see what the new rules are. Every lobby outfit on the continent mobilises to try and get tailored exemptions and loopholes. Social conflicts around emotional issues such as hunting and animal protection explode, and get manipulated by politicians for quick PR gains. Responsible companies are faced with years of uncertainty around their investments, while bandits move in to destroy nature in the hope of getting facts on the ground and then “legalising” them through the new law. Finally, the dust settles. We cannot foresee what the new law would look like, but it is hard to imagine that it would not be way more complex and contorted than the current light and elegant text of the Nature Directives. What is sure is that at least a decade of legal battles and dozens of European Court of Justice rulings will be needed before the new text reaches the level of legal clarity of the current one.

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If we choose the other road, the Commission accepts the overwhelming scientific and empirical evidence available and concludes that the legal text of the directives is indeed “fit for for purpose”. They also face up to the numerous implementation problems raised in the exercise and come up with a comprehensive and coherent plan to deal with them. They bring conservation experts and progressive businesses to the table to build on existing best practices and ensure that sites and species protection are carried out in a smart and scientific way that saves biodiversity without imposing unnecessary obstacles to economic interests. They start a serious crackdown on law breaking, including setting EU wide standards for environmental inspections. This helps save everybody’s nature while guaranteeing companies a truly level playing field within the common market. They reopen the debate on the need to properly fund conservation, paving the way for a progressive system of payments for ecosystem services to replace old failed subsidy systems. Above all, they give conservation a boost, instead of hitting the breaks.

The road you choose depends on which future you prefer. You are still in time to send a message to the Commission by joining the #NatureAlert campaign and help make history.

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.