The EU has to fight for our nature and the rule of law

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

Kresna gorge in Bulgaria is an important wildlife corridor but is under threat from the illegal construction of a motorway. [ikmerc/Shutterstock]

In the face of efforts by member states to destroy protected habitats and ignore EU nature laws, the EU must stand up for the rule of law and say enough is enough, writes Ariel Brunner.

Ariel Brunner is senior head of EU policy at BirdLife Europe & Central Asia.

The past months have been frightening and sad times for nature and its defenders in Europe. Dramatically, illegal logging in Białowieża, Europe’s last primeval forest, continues despite the European Commission referring Poland on 13 July to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).  Despite the ECJ ordering Poland to suspend logging while the hearings are ongoing, the Polish government continues to violate the court orders and arrogantly ignores the legally binding injunction.

Białowieża is an UNESCO World Heritage and home to the largest population of bison in the world. It is also an EU Natura 2000 site which means that it is protected by the Birds and Habitats Directives – the EU’s flagship nature laws that represent the cornerstone of EU-wide efforts to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

And Poland is unfortunately not the only EU member state that disregards and rejects the rule of law and the fundamental values upon which the European Union is based. The latest example of Natura 2000 site destruction is from Bulgaria and it concerns the construction of the Struma motorway inside the Kresna Gorge.

Kresna Gorge, a steep valley in southwestern Bulgaria, is the country’s richest biodiversity site. It’s a hot-spot covering 35 protected habitats and it’s a crucial narrow migratory corridor for bears, wolves and other species.

The Bulgarian government persists in trying to construct the Struma motorway inside this precious site. An alternative solution, however, was proposed to construct the motorway outside of the Kresna Gorge.  In 2012 the European Commission confirmed to the Bulgarian government that the tunnel alternative through the Kresna Gorge would be recognized and so decided to finance the construction of the Struma motorway, with the environmentally responsible alternative avoiding Kresna, as a part of the European Transport Network. The motorway is now almost completed except the section that crosses the Kresna Gorge. On 12 October 2017, almost ten years after the agreement and five years after approval by the European Commission, the Bulgarian Minister of Environment has now signed a decision that again allows the construction of the Struma motorway through the protected Kresna Gorge area, outrageously violating the original agreement. This decision breaches both Bulgarian and EU nature laws. It treats with contempt the European financing which was based on the environmentally sound alternative.

Not only is the Bulgarian government damaging a Natura 2000 site and violating the Birds and Habitats Directives, it is also violating its agreement with the European Commission. If the Bulgarian government goes through with its plans it will be financing an illegal project with funds from the European Commission. This is also an obvious outrage against the European taxpayer.

Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans stated in a recent speech at the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs: “We fight for European unity. European unity based on common values.  European unity based on law. European unity based on the respect for law, for treaties signed and ratified by sovereign parliaments. And if in those treaties it is the duty of the Commission to assure that Member States actually respect the treaties they have signed and ratified, this Commission will take this duty seriously even if politically this might be extremely difficult.”

It’s now up to the European Commission to stand up for nature, wildlife and the EU rule of law. Białowieża and Kresna Gorge show, in different ways, the urgent need for action from the institutions of European governance. Both the European Commission and the European Court of Justice must show member states that they may not trash both nature and the rule of law.

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