EU nature directives: The trust of millions in Juncker’s hands

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Nature conservation is one of the few areas where the UK trusts the EU, something the Commission should exploit before the upcoming referendum. [Ian Blacker/Flickr]

The European Commission’s decision on the future of the EU Nature Directives is not just a test of trust in the EU’s protection of our nature. it is also a test of President Juncker’s commitment to maintaining unity and solidarity, write Stanley Johnson and Olaf Tschimpke in an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV.com.

Stanley Johnson is an author, former MEP and co-chairman of Environmentalists for Europe, as well as being the father of former London Mayor Boris, and Olaf Tschimpke is president of the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, NABU.

President Juncker’s State of the Union speech in September last year identified as his three priorities for the EU the need to maintain and built unity, to show solidarity, and to be clear and honest with citizens. Europe’s nature laws offer him a golden opportunity to deliver on all three, but will he take it?

The recent Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directives broke records for public engagement in Commission consultations. Over 520,000 members of the public from across the bloc participated, and urged the executive not to change these vital laws which are the cornerstones of nature conservation action across Europe.

The highest number of responses to this public consultation came from the United Kingdom and Germany, with over 100,000 people from each country participating. Our experiences as conservationists suggest that concern for nature is something that unites our countries, and indeed the other EU member states.

The implementation of the EU Nature Directives has led to countless activities uniting NABU, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other civil society organisations with tens of thousands of volunteers in all member states. Whether it was the identification of Important Bird Areas, practical conservation projects in Germany and the UK or joint campaigns against illegal killing of migratory birds in the Mediterranean.

Of course nature itself does not respect national borders, and indeed many of the environmental problems facing Europe’s wild species and habitats are international in nature, requiring a pan-European response. The EU’s Nature Directives have an excellent track record on this front.

Scientific data shows that where properly implemented the Nature Directives are delivering demonstrable improvements to the status of our wildlife. President Juncker will be aware of this from the compelling evidence gathered for the Commission’s own Fitness Check of these Directives from governments, industry, and civil society.

However, as Juncker has noted, a rationale for EU level action does not always translate into public support for it. We would suggest that President Juncker should take great solace from the level of public participation in the Fitness Check, as well as successive surveys of public opinion which confirm that environmental protection is one of the few areas where European citizens trust the EU and value its achievements in improving air and water quality, and the status of our wildlife.

Nature may be unevenly distributed across Europe, but environmental solidarity, and the determination of its peoples to pass on to future generations a continent in no worse environmental state than the one they inherited, is core to the European DNA, and is something that we both find humbling.

The evidence gathered through the Fitness Check process will, we hope, lead to a significant step forwards in conservation action and achievement across Europe. The EU biodiversity strategy aims to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 in fulfilment of both EU and global targets, signed up to under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Recent scientific research has confirmed that without the EU Nature Directives we would not have the tools we need to achieve this, and without a greater emphasis on their proper implementation and financing we will struggle and likely fail to deliver on these commitments.

In less than a month, British voters will decide whether they think the UK has a future in the EU or not. UK voters trust the EU on environmental protection, and with the mandate he has been given by the half a million citizens that participated in the Fitness Check, President Juncker has an opportunity to demonstrate that this trust is well-placed.

We would also suggest that the president should take this opportunity, in advance of the referendum, to demonstrate that he is listening to European citizens, as well as to the evidence, and send a clear signal that he will focus the EU’s efforts on implementing laws that have proven their worth for Europe’s nature and society.