With Europe facing a “silent crisis” of biodiversity loss, MEPs are considering ways to strengthen protections for habitats and species but are divided over how to compel EU national governments to live up to their commitments.

A draft resolution debated yesterday (23 January) in the European Parliament’s environment committee says past efforts at biodiversity protection and restoring habitats have largely failed and urges the EU executive to pursue more forceful policies.

“We should be doing a bit more than producing roadmaps and we should be very clear and strong otherwise we will fail again and again,” said Bas Eickhout, a Green MEP from the Netherlands and member of the panel.

The draft calls for restoring 30% of damaged ecosystems by 2020 - doubling recent recommendations made by the European Commission. It also urges strengthening conservation provisions in the EU’s agricultural policy and to create an EU coast guard to improve enforcement of marine laws.

Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, the new vice chairman of the environment committee, said European leaders have focused on the eurozone troubles while more threatening challenges loom ahead.

“I am working on a silent crisis, that’s the extinction of species and habitats,” said Gerbrandy (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the Netherlands). “It’s a crisis behind the scenes that to be honest is probably more threatening that the euro crisis that we are facing.”

Commission’s biodiversity target

The European Commission in May map out proposals on protecting biodiversity, including restoring at least 15% of damaged or degraded habitats and underscoring the need for sustainable fisheries, forestry and agriculture.

The 2020 biodiversity strategy reflects the current Commission’s drive for tandem policies of sustainable growth and resource efficiency that are reflected in other policies under consideration this year, including energy, transport, agriculture and the LIFE programme.

The Council of national environment ministers, in a statement on 19 December, “stressed the need to integrate biodiversity concerns into all EU and national sectoral policies, in order to reverse the continuing trends of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation.”

But MEPs called for a more muscular commitment to habitat restoration and urged national governments to following through on designating protected sites under the European-wide Natura 2000 policy on habitat and species protection.

Gerbrandy called the Council statement on biodiversity “so weak that I can hardly believe it.”

“No one was sticking out his neck to discuss biodiversity,” he said, criticising the lack of progress on creating an EU-wide network of protected habitats under the Natura 2000 programme.

But some environment committee members said the draft resolution needs changes. Some members of the Greens want stronger protections for forests, and restoration of marine habitats rather than just pointing to the need to protect fisheries.

MEP Julie Girling (European Conservatives and Reformists, UK) expressed concerns about using the Common Agricultural Policy's direct payments to farmers to encourage greener cultivation, saying that should be left in the so-called second pillar funding that supports rural development and conservation.

Protecting habitats “will not be done by creating more central authority and rules, it has to be done by national governments and people wanting to do it,” Girling said.