Europe and Central Asia

Press release: EU takes legal action against nine countries for breaking nature laws

14 cases against 9 different countries – Ground breaking wave of infringements from EU finally puts nature protection at top of its agenda

The European Commission is taking legal action against nine Member States for failing to comply with EU laws that protect nature. [1][2] So many legal actions on breach of nature laws are completely unprecedented in recent years. The cases are particularly noteworthy as several of them target infringements in the agricultural sector, that has so far been largely spared scrutiny by the European Commission. 

Germany and Slovenia are threatened with court action for large-scale destruction of grasslands protected under the Habitats Directive. Their destruction is directly caused by the expansion of intensive agriculture practices. The EU’s stance in these cases will have a direct impact on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform, which currently devotes a miniscule percentage of its 58 billion euro budget to nature friendly farming practices. Grasslands are crucial for biodiversity and the survival of bees and other insects, and are also vital carbon stocks. Their depletion contributes to climate change. Official complaints were submitted back in 2014 by BirdLife partners.

Also linked to intensive agriculture malpractices, the Commission will pursue legal action against France and Spain for their failure to protect the European turtle-dove [3]. Loss of fallows, field margins and hedgerows is driving the collapse of European turtle-dove populations which have declined up to 49% in the last 16 years alone. In several countries, numbers have plummeted by 90%. Despite Member States approving a ‘Species Action Plan’ [4], no national government has started the so-called ‘emergency agro-environment measures’ to protect this migratory species. Adding insult to injury, many EU countries continue to open hunting seasons on a species that is proven to be in rapid decline, and is protected by the EU Bird’s Directive. BirdLife partners have filed complaints against six Member States, and these are the first two cases that the Commission is acting on.

The Portuguese government has failed to designate marine Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for seabirds in the Azores. The survival of birds such as the vulnerable Monteiro’s Petrel depend on these areas to be designated and enforced.

Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy, BirdLife Europe: It’s crystal clear that most national governments don’t take the collapse of biodiversity seriously, don’t take nature protection seriously, and don’t take their citizens demands to save our dying planet seriously. Without legal action from the EU, biodiversity wouldn’t have the slightest chance of surviving in Europe. Three years ago, Commissioner Vella rightly concluded that there are no problems with EU nature laws – but there is with their implementation nationally. With today’s move, he has shown that the EU is serious about the rule of law – including when it’s about nature protection.

Barbara Herrero, EU Nature Policy Officer: Vella has been outspoken about intensive agriculture being the key threat to biodiversity. Today’s decision hopefully represents the first step of a new era, one that focuses on enforcing laws instead of questioning them. The new European Commission must now ramp up the pressure on Member States to follow the law.”


Notes for editors:

[1] Multiple BirdLife partners across Europe have formally complained to the European Commission that their national governments are not doing enough, if anything at all, to protect their national heritage.

The full list of infringement procedures related to the Environment presented today:

 Letters of Formal Notice to be sent to:

  • France on its failure to properly implement Article 9 of the Birds Directive when issuing derogations for the hunting of birds, following a complaint by BirdLife’s French partner, LPO, pointing out to the constant irregularities of hunting derogations issued by French authorities.
  • France & Spain on Turtle-dove protection, both on failure to maintain adequate habitat and on continued hunting despite declines in population, in response to formal complaints issued by la League de Protection des Oiseaux (LPO), and la Sociedad Española de Ornitología (SEO/BirdLife), BirdLife partners in the respective countries. These cases will have major implications in the future development of agricultural policy in the EU, and can potentially change the way Common Agricultural Funds are disbursed.
  • Germany, on large-scale grassland destruction due to the expansion of intensive farming practices, following a complaint from German BirdLife partner NABU, with far-reaching consequences in the drive to actually green the Common Agricultural Policy
  • Slovenia, on large-scale grassland destruction and its impacts to butterflies due to the expansion of intensive agricultural practices, following a formal complaint by BirdLife’s Slovenian partner DOPPS
  • Germany, for violating the Nitrates Directive, which although different to the Birds and Habitats Directives, but can have far-reaching impacts on EU agricultural policy and political fallout. Germany has been applying illegal derogations to allow farmers to dump excessive amounts of manure on the land, causing water pollution and toxic ammonia emissions. The excessive nitrogen pollution has also been a major cause of biodiversity loss in Germany, in particular by wiping out sensitive plant species such as orchids, butterflies, bumblebees and other insects.
  • Portugal on Natura 2000 designation, following a formal complaint submitted by BirdLife’s Portuguese partner, SPEA, in 2012. Marine IBAs identified in the Azores in 2008 have yet to be designated as SPAs.
  • Poland and Romania and on Natura 2000 designation
  • Slovakia on SACs protection

Reasoned Opinions

  • Slovakia on Natura 2000 designation
  • Slovenia on transposition, in particular as to what pertains compensation of destroyed habitats by projects.
  • Poland on transposition of the Birds and Habitats Directives into national law, and the way the country deals with exemptions for forestry, and access to justice on forest plans. This can be considered a follow up of the Białowieża case from 2017, that saw an unprecedented response from the Commission, who issued monetary fines to Poland for their failure to protect a Natura 2000 site. The original case was put forward by a consortium of civil society organisations, of which BirdLife’s Polish partner, OTOP, was part of.

Referrals to Court

  • Greece on Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for lack of protection

[2] Five years ago, Commissioner Vella was tasked by the President Juncker to deregulate nature conservation through a ‘fitness check’ of the Birds and Habitats Directives. After half a million European citizens took part in a Commission consultation defending these laws, it was concluded that the Directives are ‘fit for purpose’ and that the problem lies with implementation. The release of this package cements this.

[3] France and Spain host turtle-doves from the Western flyway, which has seen the steepest declines in their population, and where most of the hunting takes place (more than 700 000 birds in Spain alone). The Commission will start proceedings against France and Spain for failure to properly implement Articles 3, 4 & 7 of the Birds Directive. These articles mandate that Member States need to maintain population levels of bird species – particularly migratory bird species – by ensuring that enough habitat diversity is available both in and outside protected areas. Member States are also under the obligation to ensure that the hunting of any bird species does not jeopardise conservation efforts. France and Spain have failed to do either of those things. The outcomes of this process are expected to be of relevance to the design and implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy.

[4] Emergency agro-environment measures were adopted as part of the European Commission’s  ‘Turtle-dove Species Action Plan’. This plan was developed in a highly inclusive process and extensive consultation (including Member States, hunting associations, and conservation organisations). Based on robust science, its aim is to restore the populations of this species across its range within the EU. The plan also included a moratorium of hunting until an “Adaptive Harvest Model” for hunting the species was developed. 

For more information, please contact:

Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy, BirdLife Europe +32 49190 4653

BirdLife Europe and Central Asia is a partnership of 48 national conservation organisations and a leader in bird conservation. Our unique local to global approach enables us to deliver high impact and long term conservation for the benefit of nature and people. BirdLife Europe and Central Asia is one of the six regional secretariats that compose BirdLife International. Based in Brussels, it supports the European and Central Asian Partnership and is present in 47 countries including all EU Member States. With more than 4100 staff in Europe, two million members and tens of thousands of skilled volunteers, BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, together with its national partners, owns or manages more than 6000 nature sites totalling 320,000 hectares.