EXCLUSIVE/ EU rules to protect birdlife and habitats – under threat from a review driven by the European Commission’s ‘better regulation’ strategy – are fit for purpose, according to leaked research that fuelled demands to leave the laws alone.
The Birds and Habitats directives are undergoing a Commission-helmed “fitness check” to ensure they are “fit for purpose” – a judgement based on if they are effective, efficient, coherent, relevant and have “EU added value.”
The executive commissioned consultants to carry out independent research into the rules. It was scheduled to be finalised in March. The independent study, overdue for publication, found that the two Nature Directives satisfied all five criteria.
“The evaluation concludes that the directives are fit for purpose. The majority of the evidence across the five evaluation criteria shows that the legislation is appropriately designed and that, over time, implementation has improved, bringing important outcomes and impacts,” the report, obtained by EURACTIV.com, said.
The only problem with the rules was some poor implementation at national level, it added.
The revelations will heap pressure on Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, in charge of better regulation, who will face MEPs in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee in Brussels at 5 PM today (15 June).
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy is the liberal ALDE group’s coordinator in the committee. “Timmermans can expect a rough ride,” he said.
“The conclusions are crystal clear,” the Dutch MEP said, “This document could have and should have been published in January. I will definitely ask him why it wasn’t.”
The Commission said it “would revert to the matter in autumn”, blaming the refugee crisis for the delay.
Orders from the top, public outcry
On taking power in November 2014, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ordered Timmermans and Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to examine the potential for “merging” the two directives “into a more modern piece of legislation”.
The directives are being scrutinised by the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT), part of the drive to cut red tape.
That decision sparked an unprecedented public outcry, with more than half a million Europeans responding in record numbers to a Commission consultation on the review.
They demanded that the environment legislation be left alone. Green groups said that reopening the directives would destroy “decades of hard work, dialogue between stakeholders and legal clarity built judgment by judgment, guideline by guideline”.
Should the European Commission ultimately decide to re-open the directives, it would have to come out with a proposal for fresh legislation. That would likely set up a fight with the European Parliament and EU environment ministers, who support keeping the Nature Directives as they are.
The draft evaluation study said the directives;
- Are a coherent legal framework, which creates important synergies with other EU policies, and an efficient use of resources;
- effective when properly implemented, and will improve with better implementation;
- a cornerstone of EU biodiversity policy;
- “vital in avoiding a ‘race to the bottom” in environmental standards across the EU;
- relevant to EU citizens and a stronger legal system of protection than most national systems;
- have “generated a fundamental change, with deeper stakeholder involvement in site management and development of conservation measures”.
Without Commission and European Court of Justice enforcement of the Nature Directives, “unsustainable management practices would most likely have prevailed”, the study said.
The report also praised requirements under the directives for stimulating research. “However, more remains to be done to clarify issues and improve practices on the ground, in order to promote more robust and efficient implementation of the directives across the EU,” it added.
“The interim findings of the fitness check are crystal clear. The legal framework we have works very well, delivers good results and is well established, so there is absolutely no need to change, revise or merge the directives – why would you?” said Andreas Baumüller, Head of Natural Resources at the WWF European Policy Office.
“A revision would take years, thereby creating a long period of uncertainty which would distract from the urgent need to implement the existing legislation. The biodiversity crisis is real. We’re losing species and habitats every day in Europe.”
On 26 May, WWF used EU access to documents rules to review the study. It was told the earliest it could expect a decision on whether to release the paper was 7 July.
“We urgently call on the Vice-President Timmermans to save the credibility of this Fitness Check and the whole agenda of ‘better regulation’. The final evaluation study of the Nature Directives must be published now, together with the political conclusions on keeping them,” said Konstantin Kreiser, head of EU nature policy at NABU, a German NGO.
“Otherwise a terrible image of the EU is painted for all those who care for the environment, including, by the way, millions of people who care for nature in the UK. The environment is a success story of the EU, and it must continue to be one.”
Delays and cancellations
The study was meant to be published, at the latest, in the first week of June, alongside a Commission working document that would draw political conclusions from it.
When neither was published, the Dutch Presidency of the EU was forced to cancel an Amsterdam Conference on Future-Proof Nature, scheduled for 28-30 June.
Without the research and working document, there would be “no substantive basis for discussions” on the Fitness Check, the Dutch said. Commission websites said the report on the results of the fitness check would be published in the second quarter of 2016.
The draft final copy of the delayed research is dated January. This means the Commission has had a sense of its conclusions for over six months.
European Environmental Bureau policy director Pieter de Pous said, “This leak adds to suspicion as to why the European Commission is holding up the release of this report.”
“It is essential now for the Junker Commission to come out with the conclusion that EU conservation policy is fit for purpose.”
“There is no rational explanation for Juncker paralysing a decision that should be obvious given both the science and the political mandate from Council and Parliament,” said Ariel Brunner, BirdLife Europe’s senior head of policy.
“One must really wonder just how serious the Commission takes democracy, given the record response to the public consultation.”
Refugee crisis to blame?
A spokeswoman said, “The European Commission is working full-speed on addressing and managing the refugee crisis, presenting proposals to this end almost on a weekly basis. As a result, other initiatives cannot be dealt with at the same speed. The Commission is planning to revert to the matter in autumn.”
Some quarters also suggested the Brexit referendum in the UK has also distracted the Commission.
But UK Prime Minister David Cameron has hailed the Birds and Habitats Directives as a reason to vote Remain on 23 June.
“A vote to Remain doesn’t mean the job is done, which is why I will continue to press for change in Europe. I will use our seat at the table to ensure […] the Birds and Habitats directives are maintained and better implemented,” he said.
Environmental campaigners allege that the delay in publication is because leading figures in the Commission are unhappy with the findings.
Some critics accuse “better regulation” of being a push to drive down standards to reduce the burden on business. That accusation was also made after the Commission controversially withdrew and rewrote the Circular Economy package of waste, landfill and recycling laws.
In June last year, Timmermans told campaigners, “Better regulation does not mean lowering standards […] I give you the guarantee.
“I challenge you to watch us very carefully and very critically […] I promise you, you will not be disappointed.”
NABU’s Kreiser said, “Timmermans had promised that a directives review would not lower standards. He cannot do this; legislation is negotiated by Council and Parliament. And most of all – there is no need to fix something that is not broken.”
Kreiser pointed to the Polish government’s logging of the Bialowieza forest, as an example of the chilling effect on environmental protection uncertainty over the rules had created.
The European Union boasts some of the strongest nature protection laws in the world, supported by the extensive Natura 2000 network of conservation sites. It covers almost a fifth of the EU’s land area and 4% of its seas.
Designed to “maintain the population of all species of wild birds in the EU at a level which corresponds to ecological, scientific and cultural requirements”, the Birds Directive bans activities like collecting eggs and destroying nests. Hunting is also limited to specific seasons, methods and species.
The Habitats Directive aims to “maintain or restore natural habitats and species of EU interest” by providing special conservation status for over 1,000 species of plants and animals in some 230 different habitat types.
Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was given a mandate from new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to cut red tape and deliver better regulation.
But some critics fear the strategy is a mask for a pro-business agenda that will drive down standards.
- Autumn: Date given for when Commission will "revert" to Fitness Check.