European lawmakers from across the political spectrum have united in criticism against the European Commission’s new flagship Forest Strategy, describing it as vague and superficial while flagging concerns that it goes beyond the remit of EU competences.
The strategy, which was presented by EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski during the European Parliament’s agriculture committee meeting on 1 September, is one of the main initiatives of the Commission’s Green Deal.
According to the Commissioner, the aim of the strategy is to secure “growing healthy, resilient forests for decades to come”.
“The new forestry strategy puts forward set of coordinated, consistent and science-based policy actions that can be implemented in full cooperation with member states and forest stakeholders,” he said.
As well as protecting primary and old growth forests throughout the bloc, the strategy aims to see 3 billion new trees planted across the EU by 2030, an initiative that Commissioner Wojciechowski pointed out has been widely well-received.
To ensure an “adequate injection of EU funds” to the forestry sector, the Commission is calling upon member states to set up new payment schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Foresters also stand in line to benefit from the Commission’s new carbon farming initiative, the first legal proposal of which is expected by the end of the year, which is set to be a new source of income for foresters, the Commissioner said.
Criticism across the board
However, MEPs remained unconvinced by the strategy, which had already received considerable criticism from a number of member states.
One notable voice of discontent was that of Finnish MEP Petri Sarvamaa, who stressed that what the sector needed was clarity and a clear vision forward, but that this strategy offered neither.
Sarvamaa suggested that the content of the strategy betrays the “power struggle” inside the Commission, which led to the creation of an “ambiguous and unclear strategy”.
“The Greens aren’t happy with it, the Socialists aren’t happy, we are not happy – who is happy about this?” he said.
Calling the strategy “content-free and vague,” Green MEP Martin Haeusling stressed the need to adapt to a new changing climate, warning that the bloc will see many more forest fires in the future.
“The burden of this will fall on Greece, Italy and increasingly other countries – but the strategy provides no answers for this,” he said.
Other MEPs expressed concerns that the strategy does not strike a balance between economic and environmental considerations.
“It gives the impression that forests are only to be considered as carbon sinks,” Renew Europe’s Ulrike Müller complained, stressing that she cannot accept the forestry economy to be “pushed into the background”.
Right wing MEP Mazaly Aguilar concurred, saying the strategy must do “a lot more to implement the multi-functional role of forests.”
Addressing the Commissioner, Aguilar said that Parliament “continues to request more ambition to take into account national realities and not only look at forests as carbon sinks.”
Stepping on member states’ toes
Meanwhile, others pointed to concerns over the Commission overstepping their mark given that forestry is a national competence.
For instance, Leftist MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan said that the EU should “concentrate on what we can do instead of dreaming over things we can’t,” suggesting that, instead of trying to influence areas outside its remit, the Commission should review the Mercosur trade agreement to offer more protection to the Amazon rainforest.
In response, the Commissioner maintained that the EU wide forestry strategy can be implemented without stepping on the toes of member states, likening the situation to that of health, also a policy area which is the preserve of member states, but which saw considerable EU action during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While he stressed that forestry will remain firmly in the remit of member states and that this will not change, Wojciechowski sees the Commission’s role as in “encouraging joint action but to an extent that does not take away member state competences and does not interfere with them”.
“Time will tell” as to how far this intervention will go, he added, pointing out the overlap between the CAP strategic plans and the forestry strategy.
“Forestry is quite a part of [CAP strategic plans] recommendations, and encouraged and included in eco schemes,” he said, offering up the example of agroforestry.
While the Commissioner said accepted the criticisms levelled at him, he said he remained “deeply convinced” that that strategy adopts an approach that is “as balanced as it gets”, covering the many functions that forests can play in the EU’s economy and within EU policies on climate protection and biodiversity.
“I think this strategy will prove its worth in the future actions,” he said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]