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Why public consultations matter for nature

All you need to know about public consultations, and why they make a difference for biodiversity and nature.

By Jeremy Herry

You know that nature is suffering. You’re well aware that more and more places are becoming uninhabitable, and that biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate. You can’t stand it – you want to take action to protect the living.

Ever more frequently, NGOs are asking you to take part in so called ‘public consultations’ run by the EU. They cover anything from nature restoration to pesticide use, renewable energy and forest protection. And they ask you to share your views to help shape the law on these issues.

You might agree that the topics are important, but you wonder – do these procedures really matter? Do your answers to public consultations actually make a difference? The answer is yes. They matter very much, and here’s why.

When the European Commission wants to propose new laws, the first thing they do is to conduct an impact assessment – which includes consulting stakeholders and the public. Stakeholders are not individual citizens, but interest groups that have a stake in the issue. This also includes industries whose business models are quite simply opposed to nature’s survival. And you can be certain that powerful lobbies will always put in the effort to protect their interests. They will fund massive propaganda campaigns, obtain private meetings with decision-makers, drown them in technical submissions and even at times threaten them with mass layoffs or delocalisation. They have the resources for it. And if these destructive forces are the only ones sharing their views, then the Commission only hears their perspective.

That’s where you come in. You need to tell the Commission your side of the story – that you care about nature, about the survival of our planet and humankind, and that you expect our leaders to do everything in their power to protect it. As an individual, you probably won’t have the possibility to meet decision-makers personally; which is why through the public consultation, the European Commission is giving you a golden opportunity to make your voice heard.

The language used in the Commission’s public consultations is rather technical and can be hard to understand if you’re not an expert. Nonetheless, on matters that concern you, and the survival of the natural world, your opinion matters regardless of your expertise. If we want a functioning democracy, we cannot allow technical complexity to bar people from participating in democratic life.

That’s why at BirdLife, we ask citizens and experts to respond to public consultations. We strive to help people who care about nature reply to the European Commission’s public consultation by signing up to pre-filled responses compiled by environmental experts.

You may wonder, why doesn’t BirdLife just share its own views with the Commission and stop there? Why are we trying to involve the public? Because there is strength in numbers: in a democracy, the mandate to exert power comes from the people. When you answer the public consultation, you are providing undeniable evidence of your will. We want to reach a point where the Commission has to say: “the will of the people is to protect nature.”

Perhaps you’re thinking that you’ve already voted for representatives, who you mandated to make political decisions. While elections are the most powerful democratic tool, and we encourage you to vote with nature in mind; the reality is that voting just isn’t enough. An electoral mandate typically lasts four or five years – so many things can happen in that period, circumstances can change dramatically, and it’s simply impossible for a candidate’s program to cover every single decision they’ll have to make. Your leaders need you to push them in the right direction. Democracy is not a spectator sport: it’s up to you to keep your representatives on their feet – and public consultations are a great way to do that.

What’s more, public consultations have been proven to work in the past: on huge pieces of legislation such as the EU’s Nature Directives or the Water Framework Directive; mass responses to the Commission had a real positive impact on decision-making.

Nonetheless, you may think that speaking your mind does not guarantee that you will be heard. That may well be true. However, if you remain silent, you will be ignored. And if you are ignored, as was the case for over 250,000 citizens calling to overhaul the destructive Common Agricultural Policy in 2017, the answer is not to give up. The answer is to come back louder, stronger and in even greater numbers; until ignoring us becomes impossible.

There is no silver bullet that will save nature forever in a single shot. The fight for the living is a vast and constant battle in which we use many tools. Public consultations are one of the mightiest.

Image credits: © Vincent van Zalinge / Unsplash

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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.