September sun rising over foggy wetlands, Ķemeri National Park, Latvia - part of the 'Natura 2000' territory designated under EU nature laws for its biological diversity, the unique Ķemeri Moorland, various ecosystems, and springs of mineral and curative waters. Photo: Arvīds Barānovs via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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Leaked official report: EU Nature Directives are 'fit for purpose'
16th June 2016
The official 'fitness test' on the EU's nature directives carried out for the EU Commission under its 'better regulation' initiative finds that the laws are 'fit for purpose' in every respect, writes Oliver Tickell. But there's a mystery: the report was completed in January, yet it remains unpublished. Did it reach the 'wrong' conclusion for a Commission intent on a bonfire of red tape?
The final evaluation study of the Nature Directives must be published now, together with the political conclusions on keeping them. Otherwise a terrible image of the EU is painted for all those who care for the environment.
On being appointed European Commission President in November 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker initiated a review into the potential for "merging" the EU's two 'nature directives' "into a more modern piece of legislation".
That kicked off a scrutiny process under the EU's 'Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme' (REFIT), part of the drive to cut red tape under the 'Better Regulation' agenda.
Appointed to take charge of the review were First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, the Commissioner in charge of 'Better Regulation, and Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella.
But the decision raised fears among nature-lovers cross Europe that the real purpose of the exercise was not so much to 'modernise' the nature directives, as to eviscerate them.
Amid the public outcry, more than half a million EU citizens responded to a Commission consultation on the review, a record number for any such consultation.
Consultants were appointed to carry out the review and they duly produced an advanced first draft on 4th January 2016. It was meant to be published in March, alongside a Commission 'working document' that would draw political conclusions from it, and in any event no later than the first week in June.
But the report itself and the political conclusion remain unpublished - to the embarrassment of the Dutch Presidency of the EU which was was forced to cancel an Amsterdam Conference on Future-Proof Nature scheduled for 28th to 30th June:
"Now that the Working Document will not be published before the end of June, the conference will have no substantive basis for discussions and will fail to add any substance to the debate at this moment. It is with regret that we are therefore forced to cancel the conference for now."
Now The Ecologist has received, via the specialist EU news agency Euractiv, a full 584-page copy of the report. And what it finds is astonishing: that the two nature laws, the Habitats & Species Directive and the Birds Directive, are entirely fit for purpose.
Here we publish in full the conclusions of the report (our emphasis shown by underling):
So why the delay?
Conservation NGOs have suspected all along that the only purpose of the 'fitness test' applied to the directives was to brand them as unfit for purpose, an obstruction to growth, development and prosperity, and a luxury that Europe was unable to afford.
The plan would then be to either:
- replace them with deliberately weak and ineffective legislation;
- allow member states widespread 'derogations' from the directives, allowing them to do pretty much as they wanted in the interests of economic growth;
- or to 'devolve' the entire question of nature protection to member states, with no 'level playing field' across the EU.
The leaking of the report has effectively quashed those options, making it clear that the laws are working well, achieving their purposes, and preventing the kind of 'race to the bottom' that their deconstruction would entail.
As for the delay in publishing the report, there are two likely causes of the obstruction, both residing in the Commission itself:
- a rift between Commissioners running the process, with Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella wishing to support the report and stand by its conclusion, and First Vice-President Frans Timmermans (backed by President Juncker) insisting on pursuing the all-important deregulation agenda;
- the Commissioners are united wishing to scrap the nature directives, but in conflict with civil servants who are refusing on grounds of professional integrity to write a 'political conclusions' report that directly and overtly contradicts all the findings of the 'fitness test' report.
Either way NGOs are getting increasingly upset and frustrated at the delay. "We urgently call on the Vice-President Timmermans to save the credibility of this Fitness Check and the whole agenda of 'better regulation'", Konstantin Kreiser, head of EU nature policy at NABU, a German NGO, told Euractiv.
"The final evaluation study of the Nature Directives must be published now, together with the political conclusions on keeping them. Otherwise a terrible image of the EU is painted for all those who care for the environment, including, by the way, millions of people who care for nature in the UK.
"The environment is a success story of the EU, and it must continue to be one."
The report: 'Evaluation Study to support the Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directives Draft', Final Report 4 January 2016.
Oliver Tickell is Contributing Editor at The Ecologist.
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