The Ecologist

 
The Aquatic Warbler, once endangered, and been restored to a healthy population level thanks to action taken under the EU's Nature Directives. Photo: LubosHouska via Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain).
The Aquatic Warbler, once endangered, and been restored to a healthy population level thanks to action taken under the EU's Nature Directives. Photo: LubosHouska via Pixabay (CC0 Public Domain).
More articles about
Related Articles

Why isn't the UK standing up for EU Nature Laws?

Catherine Weller / ClientEarth

5th November 2015

The EU's Nature Directives have been doing a great job of protecting Europe's most threatened species and habitats and building up wildlife numbers, writes Catherine Weller, and the UK knows it. But now it's the Directives themselves that are under threat. Other EU countries are standing up for them - but not the UK.

At such a crucial time for Europe's nature, the UK must act on its evidence and take a strong position in defence of the laws that protect it. We're waiting for the UK to speak up alongside the governments who have.

Last week, nine European countries called on the EU to protect two key pieces of nature legislation: the Birds and Habitats Directives.

A coalition of European Parliament members (MEPs) followed up with another letter, taking the same strong position. The UK stayed silent.

Established in 1979 and 1992 respectively, the Birds and Habitats Directives form the basis of European wildlife law. The Habitats Directive alone protects over 1,000 animal and plant species and 200 habitats.

The laws have been instrumental in establishing the Natura 2000 network, a collection of protected areas that together cover over 18% of land in the EU.

The European Commission is currently assessing whether these laws, known together as the Nature Directives, are fit for purpose. This evaluation is part of the much-lambasted 'REFIT' process in which EU governments assess whether the laws in our legal toolkit are working for us.

Branded as "making EU law lighter, simpler and less costly", REFIT is widely criticised as a deregulation drive that poses a serious threat to workers' rights, the environment and human health.

Disastrous consequences for European biodiversity

The concern over the REFIT process is that if a law is perceived to carry 'administrative burden', review will be harsh and the law may be weakened, to the detriment of what it is supposed to protect. When it comes to the already fragile world of wildlife and habitats, undermining laws that are proven to work could have disastrous consequences for European biodiversity.

In response to the ongoing fitness check of the Nature Directives, Environment Ministers from Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia and Luxembourg last week wrote a joint letter to Karmenu Vella, the EU Commissioner for the Environment. They warned against tampering with Europe's nature laws. Each also stated their willingness to better implement the laws.

Why was the UK's signature missing?

The calls to protect the Nature Directives come not only from EU governments. A few days after the ministers' letter, seven MEPs also wrote to the Commission with the same message: the Nature Directives protect wildlife, are proven to work and should stay as they are. These were the very MEPs assessing the implications of the Biodiversity Strategy's mid-term review.

Conservation law spanning multiple countries is particularly good for migratory birds. The Aquatic Warbler (see photo) is one of Europe's rarest songbirds, classified as endangered at the European level. It visits many European countries during its annual migration but since the 1970s, populations have declined significantly due to habitat destruction.

In recent years, however, due to coordinated action across European member states, numbers are beginning to recover - principally in the Natura 2000 sites established under the directives.

There were no free-roaming European bison at the turn of the 20th century; there are now nearly 3,000 in the wild. Eurasian beavers, grey seals and the Iberian ibex are among other species that have seen remarkable recoveries over the past decades, following the implementation of the Nature Directives.

UK's own investigations show the Nature Directives are doing a great job

The UK has ample evidence, much of it from its own investigations, that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose and have made real improvements to species populations and conservation status. So it is perplexing that the government stays silent.

By failing to speak up for the Directives, the UK is going against its own evidence. Following the UK government's assessment in 2012, which was largely positive, Defra submitted evidence on the performance of the directives to the European Commission earlier this year as part of the REFIT process.

Defra's evidence underlines the effectiveness and value of the law, and their unquestionable benefit to European conservation. "Without the Directives", it states, "the level of coherence and cooperation across the EU in implementing policies to protect species and habitats would undoubtedly have been less."

Defra also draws attention to broader benefits of the laws - their "significant contribution" to EU sustainable development, for example - and points out that the "rigorous requirements of the legislation" have led to better cooperation between developers and conservationists. The evidence adds:

"The laws enable member states to set a shared level ambition for protecting habitats and wildlife without compromising economic growth."

UK's lack of support is becoming increasingly conspicuous

The public consultation on whether to reopen the Nature Directives gathered 520,325 responses, thanks in part to a campaign by over 120 NGOs across Europe. It was the most popular consultation in the EU's history.

Letters of the kind the Environment Ministers and the seven MEPs have written are also unprecedented. It seems all are aware of the risks of weakening core EU legislation. As the momentum builds towards a decision, the UK's lack of support is becoming increasingly conspicuous.

At such a crucial time for Europe's nature, the UK must act on its evidence and take a strong position in defence of the laws that protect it. We're waiting for the UK to speak up alongside the governments who have.

 


 

Catherine Weller is a lawyer with ClientEarth.

 

Previous Articles...

ECOLOGIST COOKIES

Using this website means you agree to us using simple cookies.

More information here...

 

FOLLOW
THE ECOLOGIST

 

Help us keep the Ecologist platform going

Since 2012, the Ecologist has been owned and published by a small UK-based charity called the Resurgence Trust. We work hard to support the kind of independent journalism and comment that we know Ecologist readers enjoy but we need your help to keep going. We do all this on a very small budget with a very small editorial team and so joining the Trust or making a donation will show us you value our work and support the platform which is currently offered as a free service.

Join The Resurgence TrustDonate to support the Resurgence Trust