After undergoing a much-criticised European Commission-helmed ‘fitness check’, the EU’s main nature directives have been ruled fit for purpose and will not be rewritten or weakened, in a huge win for environmentalists.
The executive today (7 December) confirmed what many NGOs and environmental groups hoped would happen: the Birds and Habitats Directives will not be reopened and tinkered with. Instead, the Commission will focus on better implementing the existing legislation.
As part of the Juncker Commission’s focus on ‘Better Regulation’, it was decided in 2014 that the two directives would be scrutinised by the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT). President Jean-Claude Juncker even suggested that the two laws could be merged into a “more modern piece of legislation”.
That decision caused unprecedented public outcry; more than half a million Europeans responded in record numbers to a Commission consultation on the review, emphasising how important environmental issues are to EU citizens.
Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, who together with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was tasked with overseeing the review, today said that the directives “remain relevant and fit for purpose”. Malta’s Commissioner added that they will not be “opened” and added that the next step will be to “make sure that they are implemented in the most effective and efficient way”.
Although it was decided that the directives will not be reopened, the Commission did identify a number of areas in which improvements can be made, including insufficient management and investment in the Natura 2000 network of protected sites.
The executive also insisted that the directives could be made to work better with other sectors, such as energy, agriculture and fisheries.
As a result, an Action Plan will be drawn up, which will suggest holding regular meetings with local stakeholders, so that implementation challenges can be better understood at both a local and EU level. The Committee of Regions will also be closely involved going forward.
From an environmentalist point of view, it was very much a case of ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ from when the announcement to review the directives was first made two years ago. Robbie Blake of Friends of the Earth Europe said that keeping the laws as they are was “a no-brainer” and added that the directives “should never have been in doubt”, just for the sake of “cutting so-called ‘redtape’”.
Andreas Baumueller, WWF Europe’s head of natural resources, welcomed the Commission’s decision to focus on better implementing the legislation, insisting that “the best law is not worth the paper it is written on if it is not sufficiently implemented!”
The European Environmental Bureau’s Pieter de Pous used the opportunity to call into question the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, which he accused of “rewarding the biggest farms which pollute the most”. He called on the Commission to “overhaul” the CAP.
The Juncker Commission made ‘Better Regulation’ a cornerstone of its mandate from the very beginning, in response to accusations that Brussels is mired in red tape and bureaucracy. But the REFIT programme has been criticised for putting question marks over entire pieces of legislation, rather than scrutinising specific aspects of EU laws.
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.