The European Commission’s First-Vice President in charge of “Better Regulation” yesterday (3 June) said a controversial “fitness check” of environmental rules would go ahead, despite campaigners’ warnings it could destroy decades of nature protection work.
Speaking at the European Green Week conference in Brussels, Frans Timmermans vowed that any changes to the Birds and Habitats Directives would not lower environmental standards.
The Birds Directive bans activities such as collecting eggs and destroying nests, and limits hunting. The Habitats Directive protects areas by giving them special conservation status.
Timmermans said that the rules would be updated and improved after scrutiny under the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT). REFIT is part of “Better Regulation”, the Commission’s drive to cut red tape and make EU rules more efficient.
The First-Vice President told campaigners, “Better regulation does not mean lowering standards […] I give you the guarantee.
“I challenge you to watch us very carefully and very critically […] I promise you, you will not be disappointed.”
Timmermans was under pressure to answer concerns after, in just three weeks, 187,000 people backed a campaign against weakening the laws.
BirdLife International CEO Patricia Zurita said, “Re-opening the directives risks destroying decades of hard work, dialogue between stakeholders and legal clarity built judgment by judgment, guideline by guideline.”
Zurita, speaking at the event after Timmermans, stated that the fitness check was a “moment of truth”. It would be better to ensure EU nature protection laws, among the world’s strongest, were properly put in place and enforced, she said.
More than 100 NGOs launched the online Nature Alert, which encourages the public to respond to a Commission consultation on the REFIT of the two directives.
The campaigners, organised by BirdLife International, WWF, the European Environmental Bureau, and Friends of the Earth Europe, were worried by the “clearly hostile” tone of the consultation.
They feared it could be a first step towards sacrificing the rules in a bid to become more business-friendly.
The response smashed the previous record for a Commission consultation of about 150,000 on the mooted investor-state-dispute (ISDS) settlement, clause in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
— Ariel Brunner (@ArielBrunner) June 3, 2015
At Green Week, Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella echoed Timmermans’ assertion that sustainable development was a Commission priority.
“Nature matters for our health and wealth,” he said, “but as much as there are economic opportunites, we have environmental responsibilities as well.”
But Zurita, a green economist, asked whether it was possible to make the market incorporate the value of destroying nature. “We are still spinning a wheel on giving nature a euro, pound or dollar value,” she added.
It is not the first time that Timmermans has faced criticism over “Better Regulation”.
— EEB (@Green_Europe) June 3, 2015
He axed 80 bills from the Commission’s 2015 work programme, including the Circular Economy package of waste management laws. The move came after Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in July 2014 told the European Parliament he would “free [SMEs] from burdensome regulation” in order to increase jobs, growth and investment.
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. It has opened a public consultation about the package.
In response to criticism from MEPs, some businesses and civil society organisation, Timmermans has said the new proposal will be more ambitious.
Yesterday, he said, “I have become a great believer in the potential of the circular economy.”
There is also a push by some MEPs to save long-deadlocked extensions to the Maternity Leave Directive from being ditched.
The European Union boasts some of the strongest nature protection laws in the world, supported by the extensiveNatura 2000 network of conservation sites. It covers almost a fifth of the EU’s land area and 4% of its seas.
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.
Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was been given a mandate from new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to cut red tape and deliver better regulation.
But some critics fear the strategy is a mask for a pro-business agenda that will drive down standards.
- End of June 2015: Consultation on fitness check closes