Nature laws saved by the people: An antidote to Europe’s crisis?

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

The #NatureAlert campaign. [WWF European Policy Office / Flickr]

Environmental NGOs won a big campaign opposing the European Commission’s attempt to weaken the EU Nature Directives. This positive outcome may provide part of the answer to Europe’s search for a new narrative, write Geneviève Pons and Andreas Baumüller.

Geneviève Pons and Andreas Baumüller are respectively Director and Head of Natural Resources at the WWF European Policy Office.

Nature won! After over two years of campaigning across Europe, WWF and its partners (Birdlife, EEB and Friends of the Earth) won a big campaign opposing the European Commission’s attempt to weaken the EU Nature Directives, the most important pieces of nature conservation legislation our Union has created in over 30 years.

And not only that. The College of Commissioners also convened that more decisive action must be taken to ensure that nature is effectively protected on the ground. WWF congratulates the Commission on this important move!

This decision comes at a crucial time for the European Union, as it was plunged into its deepest crisis yet following the UK referendum, and the outcome of this controversy may well provide part of an answer in our search for a new European identity.

Here are some lessons we can all learn, activists and policymakers alike:

1) Environmental protection is a much-needed unifying cause for EU citizens

By abandoning its attempts to weaken the legislation, the Juncker Commission has successfully avoided a PR disaster, and it should now use this positive momentum in forging a new European narrative, with environmental protection at its heart.

By mobilising more than half a million citizens in the biggest public consultation the European Commission has ever seen, and by gaining the overwhelming support of the European Parliament and a majority of member states, the campaign not only acted as the ‘voice of nature’ in Europe, but it also managed to unite citizens from all member states.

As environment protection is one of the key issues where the EU and its member states can best deliver together to provide tangible benefits to nature and people, it will be our shared responsibility as NGOs, policy makers, and also the media to better defend and promote these common unifying values.

2) A “better regulation” agenda that targets good legislation is not “fit for purpose”

We all agree that the EU could and should work better: less lengthy processes, smarter rules that can be applied in 28 counties with less administrative burden etc. However, starting a lengthy and costly scrutiny of well-established and popular environmental policies that cause less than 1% of the administrative burden is counterproductive, difficult to understand and could be seen as serving specific vested interests (as this paper revealed).

Instead, the European Commission should be proud of the Union’s world leading environmental and social standards, and tackle problems like a widespread lack of implementation, harmful subsidies, and policy incoherence.

3) People’s power can achieve policy change

Despite the widespread feeling that politics – European politics even more than national – is far removed from people’s realities and deaf and blind to their expectations and needs,  last week’s victory is a sign that when people raise their voice and keep it loud until the end, they cannot be ignored.

Despite any economic crisis, Europeans care about the environment and they are ready to take action to defend it. It’s not a coincidence that the largest public consultation in the history of the EU has been in defence of nature.

***

Now that we can all turn a page on the Fitness Check, we need to make sure that this positive outcome turns into real change – both in terms of a renewed focus on strengthening rather than weakening environmental legislation, and in terms of nature protection on the ground.

The European Commission and the member states should recognise the potential of environmental issues to instill a renewed sense of pride and belonging in European citizens, and use this understanding wisely to formulate a positive and engaging vision for the future of the European project, with people and planet at its core.

At the same time, NGOs also have their role to play in telling the positive story of European integration and the ways in which it has benefitted people and the environment. The Nature Directives are a powerful example for this. Long may they live!

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe

Want to know what's going on in the EU Capitals daily? Subscribe now to our new 9am newsletter.