Commission hopes to sue Germany over weak conservation efforts

Nature preserve sign. Germany, February 2015. [Alexander Stielau/Flickr]

Germany is is not fulfilling its responsibility to preserve biodiversity and maintain protected wildlife sites, causing Brussels to initiate infringement proceedings against Berlin. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Whether it be the red kite bird or idyllic meadows of flowers, countless wild plants and animals and their habitats are severely threatened in Germany and the EU.

In response to the growing problem, EU member states passed the Habitats Directive in 1992, pledging to designate special areas of conservation and network these with each other.

But Germany’s federal government and regions have done little to fulfill the directive’s requirements.

In a letter to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier acquired by, EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella threatened to file a complaint against the Federal Republic before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and initiate infringement proceedings against the member state.

An ECJ decision could result in high penalty payments for Germany.

More specifically, the complaint has to do with one of the directive’s main pillars: Natura 2000. With the Habitats Directive, member states committed to designating, legally protecting and adequately maintaining sites for the Natura 2000 network.

This includes preserving biodiversity and preventing further degradation of natural wildlife conditions. The designated sites are supposed to be networked with each other throughout the EU, to allow for species exchange.

The six-year period for designation and legal protection of such sites originally expired in 2010.

But to date almost 2,800 of 4,700 protected sites in Germany do not have adequate legal protection. More than half, 2,663 protected sites, have not been provided with measures to keep their protected status. Here, a suitable management plan is missing to organise care of designated areas.

European Commission considers schedule unacceptable

In fact, Germany does intend to fulfill the EU’s requirements but not until 2022.

“For the Commission, this schedule is unacceptable,” explained the Environment Commissioner in his letter to Steinmeier, which arrived in Berlin in late February.

Vella is calling on Germany to adopt a position within two months and is threatening to bring infringement proceedings before the ECJ.

In Germany’s Environment Ministry, Vella’s letter caused Minister Barbara Hendricks to demand reports from her regional counterparts over whether protected sites could be designated faster than previously planned and if management plans could be more speedily approved.

Conservationists warn against farmers and politics

But there is a reason why the process is lagging in Germany. Farmers, who grow monocultures and use heavy equipment, often contribute to destroying the diversity of species.

At the same time, those in the agriculture sector see their existence as threatened. If their fields are declared to be within a protected site, they have to comply with considerable restrictions.

“The regional politicians who are responsible for designating the areas often take sides with the farmers. Together with powerful lobby groups, they block the process,” said Jürgen Metzner, managing director of the German Association for Landscape Management (DVL). The association supports farmers in their transition to operating within protected conservation sites.

The German nature and conservation society, NABU, welcomed the Commission’s position.

“It is the Commission’s responsibility, as guardian of the Treaties, to demand that Germany and its federal states finally provide legal protection to the designated Natura 2000,” explained NABU’s Europe director Claus Mayr.

It is also right, he said, that the Commission call on Germany to develop management plans so that protection targets for preserving threatened species – and thereby the biodiversity goals decided by heads of state in March 2010 – can be reached by 2020.

“Politicians must make it clear to the public that environmentally conscious agriculture can be profitable,” Metzner added.

The more diverse an ecosystem is, the more stable it is against foreign influences like natural disasters, she commented.

This is why Metzner ssees no alternative to upholding Natura 2000. “Germany must fulfill its responsibility as quickly as possible and promptly meet the Commission’s demands,” he emphasised.

Europe’s main institutions - the Parliament, Council and Commission - all seek to improve the stewardship of the land and seas, including efforts to restore natural habitats such as wetlands and forests, which harbour natural life.

There is disagreement on how aggressive those efforts should be and how much money should be spent in times of austerity. The Commission’s Biodiversity Strategy 2020 calls for restoration of 15% of habitats, while some MEPs say the proposals are too lame and want a 30% target.

National environmental representatives are on record as calling for stronger habit protections and reducing the EU’s environmental footprint, but enforcement of existing laws or targets is often weak.


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