In May 2017, EU justice ministers decided that environmental crimes – including wildlife trafficking and waste crimes – would be one of the EU’s ten priorities for the fight against serious and organised crime during the 2018-21 policy cycle. Catherine Bearder evokes how this decision came to being.
Catherine Bearder is a British MEP for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament. She launched the cross-party group ‘MEPs 4 Wildlife‘.
At the beginning of this parliamentary term, I launched the cross-party group ‘MEPs 4 Wildlife’ which is comprised of MEPs from all the major political groups. We realised that the environment (especially the natural environment) was not a high priority for the new Commission.
Our first mission was to encourage the European Commission to deliver a plan to tackle wildlife trafficking. The EU had no clear and effective plan to tackle the fourth biggest criminal activity on the planet and we wanted to see action on this topic specifically.
So we welcomed the news in 2015 that the Commission was producing the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking. This plan sent a clear message to member states that we must get serious about tackling this abhorrent crime.
But a plan means nothing if it is not put into action and backed up by budget commitments. While I applaud the Commission for their hard work in drawing up the Action Plan which highlighted lack of enforcement (in both source countries and the EU) as one of the key stumbling blocks in the fight against wildlife trafficking, I remained unconvinced we would see EU governments change their tune on tackling environmental crimes fast enough.
Nature dies a silent death, governments don’t know it is happening and act often when it’s already too late.
As rapporteur for the European Parliament’s report on the Action Plan, I called for the EU and its Member States as a first step to put more resources into training the enforcement officers to tackle wildlife trafficking. The idea came to me in a conversation with a senior Europol officer. He told me that Europol (the EU’s main cross-border crime fighting and intelligence agency) is well positioned to tackle wildlife trafficking across the EU, just as it does with drug, weapons and people trafficking.
But it did not have the resources and staff it needs to disrupt the flow of illegal wildlife products from moving across European borders.
Once my report passed through parliament (567 MEPs voting in favour with only 5 MEPs voting against), I immediately began campaigning with MEPs 4 Wildlife for concrete changes. Our approach was two-fold. First, we visited Europol in The Hague on a fact-finding mission. The officers were quite used to meeting MEPs working on the issues of human trafficking and drugs smuggling, but we were the first group to come with the goal of tackling wildlife trafficking.
The officers later reported to us that they had facilitated the arrest of 17 people who were trafficking over 10 tons of glass eels from the EU to China. While this was a huge triumph for them, it was pretty clear to us that these operations were not part of their agenda as the EU’s main security priorities did not include the environment. The officers recognised the problem of wildlife trafficking and were willing to act. What we needed was political commitments by the Member States.
So, our second action was to write a letter to all 28 EU Ministers of Environment and all 28 EU Ministers of Interior calling for environmental crime to be included in the EU’s 2018-21 security cycle. We held a bilateral meeting with the Maltese Presidency of the EU Council and held a European Parliament hearing which brought Europol, conservation experts and Member States together
The good news came in May 2017 after a Council Justice and Home Affairs meeting which decided that environmental crimes would be one of 10 of the EU’s priorities for the fight against serious and organised crime during the 2018-21 policy cycle.
The outcome of this increased prioritisation amounted to two extra Europol officers and extra funding for the secretariat of the main international wildlife convention, CITES. The Commission will now work with Europol in working groups to discuss ways to make use of the new resources to tackle environment crime – Europol must tackle not just wildlife crimes, but also waste crimes.
This outcome certainly feels like a step forward in the fight against wildlife trafficking. But we still know that poor enforcement in source countries cripples these efforts. The EU must look beyond its borders and ensure that development policies in source countries include wildlife trafficking prevention schemes and improved training of enforcement officers at the border posts and on the ground where poachers operate – this is in the plan, but it needs action to deliver.
I want to express my gratitude to the MEPs 4 Wildlife, our staff, the conservation NGOs, Europol, the Commission (DG ENV) and ultimately the EU Member States who all worked with me on this campaign. Our next goal is to ensure the EU’s raw ivory export ban is properly implemented. The Commission’s soon to be launched public consultation on ivory will tell us if we need to go further.
Ultimately, wildlife trafficking is a serious criminal activity which generates large sums of cash for the criminal gangs. These profit flows often fund other parts of their operations, including terrorism.
But it is also a crime that punishes nature, which is largely vulnerable and is something that is harder to account for and replace. We have made progress, let’s produce more wins for wildlife now and in the future.