An update on the review of the EU Nature Directives

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

An update on the review of the EU Nature Directives

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As we enter the final week of the EU Referendum campaign, I thought I would offer a brief update on the future of the the Birds and Habitats Directives (the Nature Directives).

In May, I reported here that the overdue findings of the Fitness Check of the EU Nature Directives had still not been published.  Since then there have been further developments, but still not sign of a resolution. Regular readers will know that the Fitness Check is intended to be an evidenced-based review of whether the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, although politics has played a significant part from the off.  

That said, I remain confident, not complacent, that the Directives will remain in place. More than half a million people have used their voices to defend the directives, and both the European Parliament and the Environment Council (EU Ministers of Environment) have pledged their support.

This latter group is meeting today are meeting, and although the Fitness Check is not on the agenda, given their support we expect several Ministers to raise this topic. Pictured here showing their support for the Directives outside the Luxembourg Council buildings are Carole Dieschbourg, Minister of Environment for Luxembourg, and Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety for Germany.

The results of the Fitness Check were originally scheduled for publication in the first quarter of 2016. By January 2016 this was looking ambitious, and so the Commission promised a report in time for discussion during the Netherlands presidency of the EU. The EU presidency is held in turn by all Member States for 6 months on a rolling basis.

Regular readers will remember that the Netherlands government have paid very close attention to the Fitness Check. The Saving Special Places blog reports here on a recent visit by Dutch parliamentarians to RSPB’s Wallasea Island Wild Coast project to find out more about how the UK implements the Nature Directives, with a view to informing implementation in the Netherlands.

Given this level of interest, it was hardly surprising when the Netherlands scheduled a major conference on the Nature Directives, titled “Future Proof Nature” to discuss the eagerly anticipated results of the Fitness Check. The conference was scheduled for next week, and looked set to bring together civil society, government ministers, officials from the Commission and Member States, and businesses to discuss the results, and what should happen next. I say was, because just last week the Netherlands Government decided to cancel the conference.

The Commission’s promise to publish the findings in time for the conference has not been fulfilled. Last week EurActiv, an online news service on EU affairs, reported here on the cancellation of the conference and the delayed publication of the results. Of course, the delay might be justified if work was ongoing on the final report, but Euractiv had secured a leak of a draft of the Commission’s report, dated 4th January 2016, suggesting the results could have been published in time for the Netherlands conference.

You can read the draft report here, if you have the time and inclination to wade through 584 pages of detailed evidence and analysis, but to spare you this, let me summarise; the Nature Directives are fit for purpose. The findings are unequivocal, “The majority of the evidence gathered across the five evaluation criteria shows that the legislation itself is appropriately designed and that, over time, implementation has improved, bringing important outcomes and impacts”.

This is welcome news, but of course these findings have not yet been published, the Commission has not yet come up with a better implementation plan, and nature is still in trouble. Birds, habitats, wildlife, all are desperately in need of the conservation measures set out in the Nature Directives, but not yet fully delivered by Member State governments across the EU28. Meanwhile President Juncker’s office is delaying progress for no apparent reason.

The day after the EurActiv article appeared, the European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans attended the European Parliament’s Environment Committee to answer questions from MEPs. Frans Timmermans found himself in the unenviable position of defending an indefensible decision that was not his own. In relation to the findings of the Fitness Check and the future of the Nature Directives he clearly stated, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but many of the MEPs were not fully convinced, describing the delays as “unacceptable”, and pressing the Vice-President to commit to a publication date.

During Frans Timmermans’ excoriating hearing in the European Parliament, one MEP, Danish Green Margrete Auken, gave him the benefit of the doubt, praising his acknowledgement that if the Nature Directives are working they should not be revised, and acclaiming, “there is more happiness in heaven over one sinner that repents, than over ninety-nine just persons”. Timmermans has seen the light, maybe it’s time that Commissioner President Jean-Claude Juncker opened his eyes to the evidence, and the 520,000 Europeans calling for something to be done for our beleaguered nature.

Next week the European Commission returns to the Environment Committee for an “exchange of views with the Commission” on the follow-up to the European Parliament resolution on the mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, which I commented on here. The Nature Directives are key to the delivery of several targets under the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, and the longer uncertainty over their future is allowed to continue, and action to achieve full implementation is delayed, the bigger the task of bringing Europe’s wildlife back from the brink will be.

Meanwhile a Freedom of Information request has been put submitted to the Commission by WWF for access to the final report of the Fitness Check consultants, on which the Commission’s report will be based. A response to this request is expected in the next weeks.

We live in exciting times.

  • Red Kite is right: this is more than just about the Nature Directives, it is a test for Jean-Claude Junker. With, for once, so many citizens becoming involved in this issue it is vital that the EU institutions recognise that if they are not to confirm the view that they are there for a closed elite they must listen and act. Even the delay you describe is a step too far in the wrong direction. At a critical time in the history of the EU there is a clear, sharp decision point and whilst totally on the Remain side I do fear that it will not be recognised and there will be attempt to back pedal, which hopefully will unleash a storm of opposition and force Junker and the EU to follow what its citizens have made clear they want.

  • This is where the EU looses so much credibility with all these shenanigans and partly why so many people across the EU, regardless of their country, are fed up with it. The need to ensure the Nature Directives remain firmly in place is clearly overwhelming and what the majority of people want. This sort of delay, no doubt due to last minute lobbying by commercial/ money seeking businesses is just not acceptable. The EU must act as a democracy not as a closed society, otherwise in the long run it will be lost. ( But we must still vote on Thurusday to "remain" but recognising much reform within the EU is needed)

    Well done WWF and RSPB keep up the pressure all the way, this is vital.