The Birds and Habitats Directives: a secure future for environmental protection in Europe?

Back in September, the announcement by incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that there would no longer be a European Commissioner for whom the environment is their sole responsibility suggested the possibility of significant changes to environmental policy at the European level, much to the consternation of many NGOs. Two months on, with Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for the newly created portfolio of Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, in place and a few weeks into his mandate, do we have a clearer impression of the environmental trajectory of the Juncker Commission?

In his opening statement to the European Parliament, Commissioner Vella outlined three core priorities for the environment component of his mandate: a focus on green growth that recognises the inseparability of environment and economy, the need to protect the natural capital on which this growth depends, and the need to safeguard Europe’s citizens from environmental risks to their health. Alongside this, his maritime and fisheries priorities will be the reform of the common fisheries policy, better international governance, and blue growth.

One of the first big issues to land in Commissioner Vella’s inbox will be the “fitness check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives, the EU’s flagship nature conservation legislation. The fitness check is part of REFIT initiative, a cross-Commission review of European legislation with the stated aim of “making EU law simpler and to reduce regulatory costs, thus contributing to a clear, stable and predictable regulatory framework supporting growth and jobs”. In his “mission letter” to Vella, President Juncker framed the new Commissioner’s task as being to “carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation”.

In his opening statement, Commissioner Vella encouragingly framed his task in reviewing the directives as “an assignment to maintain and, where necessary, improve the protection for our ecosystems and vulnerable species”. However, situated as it is within the context of a regulatory assessment whose primary focus is economic growth, many environmental NGOs, commentators and indeed business groups have expressed fears that the REFIT process represents, in the words of the Green 10 coalition “a front for deregulation” that threatens to weaken the strong protection for species and habitats that the directives afford. The directives are widely viewed as a successful example of international cooperation creating a level playing field for environmental protection across member states, with research suggesting that they have had a significant positive impact.

In this context, it is vital that the fitness check is informed by the best evidence, and that decisions about the future of biodiversity conservation across the EU are informed by sound ecological science. Therefore the BES Policy Team will be hosting an interactive workshop at the forthcoming British Ecological Society / Société Française d’Ecologie Joint Annual Meeting in Lille, bringing together ecologists attending the meeting from across the continent to discuss the key ecological questions underpinning the Birds and Habitats directives, and to add their perspectives to this important debate.

You can find out full details about the workshop on the BES website, or if you can’t attend in Lille, get in touch with the BES Policy Team to find out how you can get involved with this issue. The BES will be responding to the public consultation on the fitness check which will be carried out in 2015, using views gathered at the workshop, and will be working with partners including Wildlife and Countryside Link to ensure that ecological evidence informs the review process.