A call on Vice-President Timmermans to free the Nature Directives

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The fitness check of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives was due to be completed this autumn. [Eric Frommer/Flickr]

If the Commission wants to change its image as a shadowy lobbyist’s paradise, approving the Birds and Habitats Directives would show that the EU executive is in touch with its citizens, not in the pocket of powerful corporations, writes Ariel Brunner.

Ariel Brunner is senior head of policy for BirdLife Europe and Central Asia.

Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans put his best foot forward in New York last week.  In championing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he brings greater credibility to the EU’s global leadership in one of the areas where the world still looks up to Europe. Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, the race to save the EU’s Nature Directives started months ago, yet his foot is still firmly on the starting block.

The Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directives should have been concluded months ago. The Commission’s own extensive evidence, released back in July, shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the EU nature laws are fit for purpose. The only thing that is lacking is proper implementation, enforcement and funding. The Commission not only has a rock solid mandate from both the European Council and Parliament, but also sweeping support from the public and most stakeholders. Indeed, the Vice-President himself had previously committed to an autumn conclusion of the Fitness Check, telling the European Parliament that he has no intention of fixing something that is not broken.

But words are empty without action: the process drags on and on, with frustration mounting among member states and environmentalists alike. Releasing the results of the Fitness Check – and initiating a similar Fitness Check of the CAP – is the real test of Vice-President Timmermans’ commitment to the ideals he defends internationally. It is now time to blow the final whistle and declare Nature the winner.

With the environment ranking in the top concerns of EU citizens alongside security and refugees, and with over 500,000 citizens having spoken out loud and clear – in the largest public consultation campaign the EU has ever seen – this continued silence is a litmus test of the Commission’s willingness (or lack thereof) to listen to its citizens. The growing sense that popular legislation is being held hostage to the whims of faceless officials is a devastating blow to the EU’s image at a time when it so desperately needs a public ‘big win’.

In a parallel development, the Vice-President is also being called upon to take a decision on the future of the better regulation agenda. The REFIT stakeholders’ panel has unanimously flagged the CAP – a policy that eats up over a third of the entire EU budget – as being in desperate need of a proper Fitness Check to fully assess its efficiency and effectiveness. This call has been opposed by a majority of national governments which clearly prefer not to rock the boat with uncomfortable questions about the status quo. Giving in to this ‘head in the sand’ approach would rob all legitimacy from the better regulation agenda and the REFIT programme. Either they are a transparent and inclusive tool-kit for promoting good governance or they are a thinly veiled cover for selective legislation attacks on behalf of certain lobbies. They cannot be both.

Over in the US, Timmermans told us he is committed both to sustainable development and proving that Brussels is not the shadowy lobbyists’ paradise that its detractors describe. It is often said that everything can change in a ‘New York Minute’ – with this in mind, let’s hope that this rhetoric signals an immediate and serious will to act. What better way to reconnect the EU with its citizens than by freeing the Nature Directives that the people themselves have so loudly defended?  If the Vice-President truly wants to seize the day in these troubled times, he would be wise to not simply say carpe diem but carpe naturam!

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