NGOs fear ‘better regulation’ could hurt environment

The kingfisher is one of the species afforded special protection under the Birds Directive. [Gilberto Pereira/Flickr]

More than 100 environmental NGOs said on Tuesday (12 May) that they feared the European Commission may use its better regulation programme to cut nature protection laws. 

The European Commission opened a consultation on Tuesday into EU nature legislation as part of its Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT).

REFIT is part of the better regulation strategy led by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. It aims to simplify EU law and reduce regulatory costs, but has been criticised for endangering social and environmental standards.

Campaigners are worried that the consultation is a first step towards sacrificing the Birds and Habitats Directives in a bid to become more “business friendly”.

Designed to “maintain the population of all species of wild birds in the EU at a level which corresponds to ecological, scientific and cultural requirements”, the Birds Directive bans activities like collecting eggs and destroying nests. Hunting is also limited to specific seasons, methods and species.

The Habitats Directive aims to “maintain or restore natural habitats and species of EU interest” by providing special conservation status for over 1,000 species of plants and animals in some 230 different habitat types.

>> Read: Commission hopes to sue Germany over weak conservation efforts

The European Union boasts some of the strongest nature protection laws in the world, supported by the extensive Natura 2000 network of conservation sites. It covers almost a fifth of the EU’s land area and 4% of its seas.

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella insisted that REFIT was not intended to bring down standards. “The Birds and Habitats Directives form a cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation policy. I am therefore committed to ensuring that there is no scaling back on its objectives,” he said.

But the “clearly hostile” tone of the consultation has worried many NGOs, who launched an online campaign called “Nature Alert” on Tuesday 12 May. In its first day it received a record 50,000 responses.

Cutting red tape

Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau, said, “The European Commission’s current fixation with deregulation and cutting so-called ‘red tape’ is blinding it to the effective solutions for endangered habitats and species”.

In July 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament he would “free [SMEs] from burdensome regulation” in order to increase jobs, growth and investment.

Timmermans axed 80 bills from the Commission’s 2015 work programme, including the Circular Economy package of waste management laws. The Maternity Leave Directive will be ditched at the end of this month if it fails to make headway.

The Circular Economy package contained a range of legally binding targets for waste disposal and recycling, including a ban on landfilling for all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.

The Commission plans to resubmit the plans later in 2015. Timmermans said “We will do this very quickly because we want the Circular Economy […] we want to put something on the table that is more ambitious.”

>> Read: Waste laws will be binned, despite protests

A leaked better regulation strategy paper stressed that the push to cut red tape would not lower environmental or other standards.

“Better regulation is not about “more” or “less” EU regulation; nor about deregulating or deprioritising certain policy areas or compromising the values that we hold dear,” it said.

New guidelines on better regulation will ensure economic, social and environmental impacts are considered in Commission analysis, it added.

>>Read: Commission wants to vet changes to draft EU law

Karmenu Vella, the EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said "The objectives of the nature legislation to conserve EU's wildlife and habitats are not being called into question with this 'Fitness Check'. The Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats is part of a broader program of taking stock of EU legislation to ensure that it is fit for purpose.

The focus is on ensuring that an effective legislative framework is in place; legislation that can produce real results on the ground.

It is crucial that any evaluation of the legislation is transparent and open. The best way we can get Europeans engaged in protecting nature is to show that we are open to their suggestions."

According to Angelo Caserta, Director of BirdLife Europe: “We have great weight of evidence showing that these laws work, when implemented. And numerous examples that these laws are no obstacles to any good economic development. So, my question to President Juncker and VP Timmermans is simple: with all there is to do in Europe, why undo nature laws?”

Tony Long, Director of WWF European Policy Office, said: “WWF has been fighting for over 30 years to make sure Europe has comprehensive laws for the protection of nature which set a world standard. We are not prepared to stand by and let this legacy be wasted. No one will benefit from turning back the clock on Europe’s nature laws, not the natural world itself nor we as humans who depend on it for our livelihoods. Now begins a popular appeal to keep nature alive.”

According to Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau: “The European Commission’s current fixation with deregulation and cutting so-called ‘red tape’ is blinding it to the effective solutions for endangered habitats and species. Instead of threatening to unpick these laws, the European Commission and member states should put more effort into implementing them, and make sure they deliver the enormous benefits they can bring to nature as well as to us and our economy”.

Magda Stoczkiewicz, Director of Friends of the Earth Europe said: “We all have a right to nature – and chipping away at vital laws that help protect it would be a disaster for European citizens and the nature we love. We are mobilising people across the EU and will make our voices loud and clear – our nature is not up for grabs and we expect our politicians to protect it for all of us and for future generations.”

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