Debating the Nature Directives at EU Green Week

Hosted annually by the European Commission, EU Green Week is the largest annual conference on European environmental policy, attracting over 3,000 participants from governments, NGOs, businesses and academia to Brussels over the course of three days. In line with our strategic aim of improving interaction with decision-makers at a European level, last week the BES External Affairs team attended Green Week for the first time. With this year’s theme – “Nature: our health, our wealth” – focusing on the relationship between Europe’s natural environment, and our social and economic wellbeing, the current uncertainty surrounding the future of the Birds and Habitats Directives was the hot topic of discussion.

2015 is an important year for nature conservation in Europe. We are halfway towards the deadline imposed by the EU Biodiversity Strategy of halting the loss of biodiversity in the continent by 2020. Yet, as Ronan Uhel of the European Environment Agency outlined at Green Week, the recent State of Nature in the EU report shows that we are not on track to meet this target. Furthermore, the Birds and Habitats Directives, the cornerstones of European conservation legislation, are this year subject to a “Fitness Check” review as part of the European Commission’s REFIT programme for “better” regulation. Seeking to assess whether the Directives remain “fit for purpose”, the fitness check could lead to changes in the legislation.

Fit for purpose?

Given that biodiversity loss is continuing apace in the European Union, is it time to change the legislation we have at our disposal? At Green Week, Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission indicated that the idea should be entertained. While vowing that any changes would not lower environmental standards, he suggested that the legislation needed updating, to find “more modern ways to reach those standards”. This echoed the mandate issued by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella last year to assess the potential for merging the Directives “into a more modern piece of legislation”.

Yet for many of the speakers at Green Week, the response to the question of whether the Directives should be changed was a resounding “no”. Patricia Zurita, Chief Executive of Birdlife International, and Mike Clarke of the RSPB both argued that the Directives are “a success to be proud of” that underpin the world’s most comprehensive network of protected areas (Natura 2000) whilst also allowing for sustainable economic development. Their stance is that the Directives must be upheld in their current form, and that improved implementation of existing legislation is where change is needed. This view has already garnered huge public backing, with over 200,000 people already responding to the public consultation on the Directives through the Nature Alert campaign, backed by NGOs across Europe.

This support for maintaining the Directives in their current form was echoed by Elsa Nickel, Director General of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, who argued that from the German Government’s perspective, the Directives were absolutely “fit for purpose”. She explained that while implementation was not always easy, and far from complete, the Natura 2000 network was now established and starting to have a noticeable positive impact, whilst providing certainty for businesses. Any changes to the legislation would undermine this stability and risk changing a successful framework just as it is starting to take real effect. This view was reinforced by Ronan Uhel’s summary of the results of the State of Nature in the EU report, which found that when implemented well, the Natura 2000 network is delivering clear benefits for people and nature. However, as the report highlights, only 50% of protected sites have comprehensive management plans.

The view that it is implementation, not the Directives themselves, that is holding back European efforts to halt biodiversity loss was further endorsed by Carole Dieschbourg, Luxembourg’s Environment Minister, and from the private sector by Dimitrious Dimopolous of Piraeus Bank. This view was not, however, universal. Pekka Pesonen, General Secretary of COPA-COPEGA (representing farmers in the EU) welcomed the fitness check and argued that environmental protection needed to better support rural economic development. He suggested that the rigidity of the Directives meant that farmers “fear” rare species appearing on their land, and that the Directives also need to be better adapted to changing conditions, such as population dynamics and climate change.

What does the evidence say?

The majority of evidence supports the conclusion that when implemented well, the Birds and Habitats Directives are effective in delivering benefits for both biodiversity and people, and the BES supported this conclusion as part of the UK’s “Joint Links” evidence submission to the Fitness Check. For example, Donald et al (2007) found that species afforded the strictest protection under the Birds Directive saw a reversal of previous population declines, with studies by Pellisier et al (2013) and Brodier et al (2013) also demonstrating positive impacts of the Natura 2000 network on bird species. Furthermore, work by Gantolier et al (2014) found that the socio-economic benefits of the network are substantially larger than the costs.

The Fitness Check is ongoing, and we encourage BES members to complete the public consultation, or get in touch if you would like to contribute to our organisational response. You can find the questionnaire online here.