The European Court of Justice has confirmed that the logging of ancient woodland in Poland infringes EU law, paving the way for penalties against Warsaw and prolonging its spat with Brussels.
In an Opinion issued on Tuesday (20 February), Advocate General Yves Bot said that Poland had not taken the necessary steps to protect Białowieża Forest and urged the Court to also rule against Warsaw.
ECJ rulings rarely come to a different conclusion than an AG’s Opinion. A final judgement will be issued later this year.
Poland had claimed that logging activities in the forest were necessary in order to deal with an outbreak of bark beetle, an indigenous species that thrives in areas with lots of dead wood.
But Bot insisted that this excuse was “not justified” and also dismissed claims that the removal of wood from the area was necessary in order to maintain public safety.
The Opinion also warned that the logging activities are “potential threats to the conservation of protected habitats” as well as the mating habits of protected species. Białowieża is home to the European bison, the continent’s largest land mammal.
Białowieża Forest is protected under the EU’s Natura 2000 initiative and, as such, national authorities have to meet strict rules. Today’s Opinion concluded that Poland could not have satisfied criteria such as impact assessments in order to legally carry out the logging of the woodland.
Bot acknowledged that a “balance” has to be struck between passive and active management of areas like Białowieża but added that the precautionary principle of the Habitats Directive had been “disregarded”, especially when it came to Poland’s bark beetle excuse.
The ECJ in July issued an injunction ordering Poland to stop logging in the forest, after the European Commission lodged a complaint with the Luxembourg-based court in mid-2017. Environmental activists claimed that the Polish authorities had ignored that ruling.
The Commission today said it would not comment on the ongoing case until the final judgement is issued.
The then-environment minister, Jan Szyszko, who lost his job in the recent reshuffle of the Polish government, was the figurehead of Poland’s fight against the Commission. The minister previously accused the EU executive of using “fake news” to distort the facts of the case.
Environmental justice group ClientEarth welcomed the decision. “We hope that Minister Kowalczyk [Szysko’s successor] will put an end to the destructive policy of his predecessor and grant the whole of Bialowieza Forest national park status. This is the only way to properly protect it from damaging logging for good,” said lawyer Agata Szafraniuk.
Białowieża Forest is one of the last and largest areas of primeval forest in Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site. It straddles the Polish-Belarussian border and enjoys a certain degree of protected status in both countries.