Celebrating 25 years of the EU’s nature directives

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Iberian Lynx are among the species that have been brought back from the brink of extinction since the EU first introduced the Habitats Directive in 1992. [Steve Slater/Flickr]

Europe’s nature protection legislation has had remarkable success with a tiny budget over the last 25 years. Just think what we could achieve with adequate funding in the next quarter-century, writes Andreas Baumüller.

Andreas Baumüller is head of natural resources at WWF’s European Policy Office.

Close your eyes. Imagine your own paradise. Breathe it in. Listen to its sounds.

How many motorways does it contain? How many skyscrapers?

While nature – plants, animals, birds – can fade to a hum during the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, few of us can imagine a world without it. And we only need to embark on a hike or a long bike ride, to experience it ourselves.

Europe’s nature is incredibly diverse – as diverse as Europeans are. From snowy tundra to shimmering seas. From the rose-tinted Dolomites and Alpine crags to forests, tranquil lakes and undulating hills. In the sky, on the ground, in the water, Europe’s native creatures buzz, hum, splash, shriek and howl.

Still, Europe is the most populated continent in the world. The pressure to use every square metre for human activities was – and is – high. This has put even Europe’s most breathtaking landscapes at risk of exploitation. It brought several of its native species – like the Iberian lynx, the Mediterranean sea turtle and the grey wolf – close to extinction.

Urgent action and shared rules were needed. And so in 1992 – 25 years ago this 21 May – EU leaders passed the Habitats Directives.

At the same time, a financing programme was set up – EU LIFE – to support projects that help protect Europe’s nature. While the pot of money was, and still is, nowhere near enough, it was a huge achievement – the first dedicated EU fund for the environment.

The nature laws and the EU LIFE programme helped save Europe’s nature. Many depleted land and water habitats were partly or almost fully restored. They brought the wolf, lynx and others back from the brink of extinction.

The world’s biggest network of protected areas was created: Natura 2000. Today Natura 2000 covers 18% of Europe’s land and 6% of its seas – bigger than any EU member state.

This breakthrough legislation still protects nature across Europe and so helps fight climate change, provides health benefits, and supports thousands of livelihoods. It is hugely supported by European citizens, who fought to save it in record-breaking numbers when it was at risk.

It is important to celebrate this as we reach the directives’ 25th anniversary this Sunday – designated ‘Natura 2000’ day. But we must also look to the next 25 years, to see how we can continue to slow the loss of biodiversity in Europe and the world.

The tiny LIFE programme represents just 0.4% of the EU budget – €1 per citizen per year – but it has delivered results time and again on a range of subjects. In WWF’s case, it has supported initiatives from our EU MaxiMiseR climate project to an energy project in Poland, from a project on healthy rivers to one on sustainable diets.

Any investor will tell you that when you get good results, that’s where you go. The LIFE programme has not only produced great results – it has potential to do far more. The current funds are not enough to tackle the major challenges that lie ahead for the environment.

All this is why WWF is calling for the LIFE programme to be increased in the 2021-2027 EU budget. More funds will not only help get the EU nature laws fully implemented, they will provide an opportunity for more environmental action.

Nature in Europe belongs to all Europeans. Time and again it has been shown we care about this shared nature deeply. At a time when Europe’s future direction is being decided, let’s remember what unites us. Let’s build our future on successes like LIFE and the EU nature laws and together, work to ensure they are implemented and strengthened.