The future of the Nature Directives: implementation not revision?

This week saw a significant development in the debate over the future of the EU’s most important conservation legislation, as nine Member States called for the Nature Directives to be maintained in their current form. In a letter to Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, the environment ministers of nine European countries – Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Luxembourg, Poland and Spain – state that amending the directives “would not be expedient”, and that “greater emphasis on implementation” would be a better means of achieving global and European biodiversity targets. They argue that amending the directives would create legal uncertainty and divert resources away from the important process of implementation.

The letter comes at a crucial time in the REFIT “Fitness Check” process that has dominated conservation policy debates across Europe this year. The review seeks to assess whether the legislative framework provided by the Birds and Habitats Directives (collectively the Nature Directives) remains “fit for purpose”, with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker placing the possibility of revision and merger on the table. The ministers’ intervention comes ahead of an important conference in Brussels next month, when the initial findings of the Commission’s consultation process will be presented to stakeholders.

This consultation elicited an unprecedented response from European citizens, with over 520,000 people and organisations – including the BES – submitting their views in a clear demonstration of public support for conservation. The Commission also engaged in a wide-ranging evidence gathering exercise, taking submissions from Governments, NGOs and businesses in each Member State. In the UK, the BES was one of 100 environmental NGOs that contributed to and supported the submission on behalf of the Joint Links (Wildlife and Countryside Link, Scottish Environment Link, Wales Environment Link and Northern Ireland Environment Link).

The overarching conclusion of the Joint Links submission supports the argument made in this week’s letter: that the outcome of the Fitness Check should be improved implementation of the Nature Directives rather than wholesale revision. Importantly, the balance of evidence suggests that when implemented well, the Nature Directives have a significant positive impact on biodiversity. New research published this year in Conservation Letters reinforces previous studies by finding that species afforded special protection under the Birds Directive demonstrate significantly better population trends than other birds, even when additional factors such as climate change are considered. Similarly, this year’s State of Nature in the EU report found that the more fully a species or habitat is covered by the Natura 2000 network of protected sites – created by the Directives – the better its conservation status.

That is not to say that the Directives are working perfectly: if current trends continue, we will fail to meet the target of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. Yet it is clear that implementation is far from complete: only 50% of Natura 2000 sites even have proper management plans in place, and the Society of Conservation Biologists has identified the need to improve analysis and monitoring of implementation whilst improving the use of the latest scientific research to inform effective conservation planning and management.

An additional strength of the argument for avoiding changing the Nature Directives is the stability it offers business. As the ministers’ letter highlights, the Directives provide legal certainty, and those affected by them “have learned how to deal with [their] provisions”. Energy UK’s recent position statement on the Directives illustrates the value businesses place on this certainty: “re-opening the Directives would introduce a degree of unnecessary uncertainty to energy project developments that would damage investor confidence at a time when it is vital to deliver new energy infrastructure”.

A Defra review of the Directives in 2012 found that the Directives strike a good balance between environmental protection and development, stating that “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.” Recent innovations – such as a new approach to great crested newt conservation being piloted by Natural England – have demonstrated how conflicts can be reduced through changes to implementation without altering legislation.

While this week’s developments suggest a move away from the prospect of the Nature Directives being opened up, significant uncertainty remains. Although the Member States openly calling for the maintenance of the legal status quo represent almost two-thirds of the EU population, nineteen countries, including the UK, are yet to express a clear view. With the Commission’s final report not expected until early 2016, the future of Directives will remain at the top of the European conservation agenda for the foreseeable future.