27 Mar 2018

A Tale of Two Treaties

Long-eared owl
By Gui-Xi Young

In the United States, one of the world’s most important and influential bird protection laws is under threat – but all is yet not lost. Across the pond, BirdLife mobilised over half a million EU citizens to turn around a similar crisis ­- here’s how we did it.

This is a tale of two nature laws – the United States’ Migratory Birds Treaty Act 1918 (MBTA) and the European Union’s Birds and Habitats Directives. It seems appropriate, then, to borrow again from the pages of the great Charles Dickens and start simply with ‘‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.

Nature lovers across the US have no doubt feared the worst of times since a proposed amendment to the MBTA – one of the world’s most stellar wildlife conservation laws – threatened to clip its wings. This law protects more than 1,000 species from human-induced threats, and over the past century Audubon estimates it has “saved millions, if not billions, of birds”, even bringing species like the Snowy Egret back from the brink of extinction. Yet in its centenary year, the act itself has become endangered.

Snowy egret

Nature lovers across Europe can empathise. Only recently, in 2015, we too experienced the worst of times as our own Birds and Habitats Directives fell prey to political attack. These benchmark laws offer critical protection for over 1,000 animal and plant species and the world’s largest network of protected sites – Natura 2000. Their weakening seemed a fait accompli when the European Commission – the executive arm of the EU, based in Brussels – announced a so-called Fitness Check of the directives under the pretext of pursuing ‘Better Regulation’. Our only hope to avert the crisis was that the European Commission would seek the views of citizens via an online public consultation. The problem: such consultations have notoriously low participation rates.

"with a cacophony of squawks, chirps, cheeps, chatter and, of course, tweets, the BirdLife dawn chorus got the #NatureAlert hashtag rising"

BirdLife banded together with WWF, Friends of the Earth and the European Environmental Bureau to launch ‘Nature Alert’ – an EU-wide campaign to rally European citizens to save the nature directives. Our campaign grew rapidly, bolstered by support from countless e-NGOs, civil society organisations, scientists, environment ministers, politicians, businesses and passionate individuals. Our national BirdLife partners in all 28 EU Member States came together as one family like never before – with a cacophony of squawks, chirps, cheeps, chatter and, of course, tweets, the BirdLife dawn chorus got the #NatureAlert hashtag rising.  

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Nature Alert action in Brussels © Friends of the Earth

Lo and behold…it worked. Over half a million European citizens stood up for nature – smashing the record books for EU public consultations.

Over the next 15 months – while the Commission scrutinized these laws, deliberated silently on their fate and repeatedly delayed their verdict – this massive citizen mandate kept Nature Alert alive. Our campaign strategy shifted to putting pressure on the so-called ‘Brussels Bubble’, targeting key political figures on Twitter and publishing open letters, op-eds and ads in influential Brussels news outlets like Politico.

 © Dagmar Cohnen

Our messaging throughout was purposefully positive: ‘Free the Nature Directives!’, ‘We are 500,000+’, ‘All for Nature, nature for all!’ With populism on the rise in many Member States, we steered well-clear of anti-EU rhetoric. Rather, we called on the EU to live up to its potential as the great champion of our common European natural heritage. After all, nature, like the European Union, knows no borders.

© BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

And finally, in December 2016, victory came. The European Commission declared that they would not only preserve the nature directives but strengthen and better fund them. After the tumult of the Brexit vote and the divisions it exacerbated, this was not just a win for nature, it was a victory for democracy and, in turn, a victory for Europe and her future. In the worst of times, we found the best within us – the threat to the nature directives brought about unprecedented unity, not only within the BirdLife partnership, but between different environmental groups, political groups and even businesses; and this threat brought the peoples of 28 different countries together as Europeans united for a common cause.

So let the success of Nature Alert show our friends across the pond struggling to save the MBTA that all is not lost. After ‘the winter of despair’ may come ‘the spring of hope’. And this ‘Tale of Two Treaties’ may yet be retitled ‘A Tale of Two Citizenries’.