Guest blog by Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for the Environment from 2009 to 2014

In my five years as European Commissioner for the Environment one of the key things I have learned is that Europe’s citizens care about their natural environment, passionately. That most certainly includes the UK. Indeed it has been striking that despite the apparent scepticism towards the EU there, UK citizens and NGOs regard the EU as a friend when it comes to environmental protection.

I have visited many nature reserves and met with many NGOs and volunteers in my time as Commissioner.  Earlier this year while in the UK I had the good fortune to visit RSPB’s Northward Hill reserve and the North Kent Marshes, which overlooks the great expanse of the Thames. I saw Marsh harriers, Herons, little Egrets, and I met the Friends of North Kent Marshes. They, like so many people in the UK, are passionate about the wild places on their doorstep, and determined that they will be protected for future generations. For North Kent Marshes, and for many other international important wildlife sites across Europe, that protection is delivered by EU environmental law.

2014 marks the 35th anniversary of the EC Birds Directive. Birds, many of which are migratory, are part of our common heritage. In 1979, the Member States of the EU unanimously adopted the Birds Directive in recognition of the worrying decline and unsustainable use of some bird species. Over the past 35 years, the Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and the EU’s LIFE funding programme, have provided a solid foundation for countries to work together to protect species and habitats.

The North Kent Marshes are part of a world class network of European Sites that are collectively known as the Natura 2000 network and have been scientifically proven to be helping Europe’s wildlife. The Natura 2000 network features nearly 5,500 Special Protection Areas specifically for birds, covering over 12% of EU land area, and including almost 1,000 sites at sea. A key principle underpinning the network is ensuring that conservation and sustainable use go hand in hand with benefits to local communities, as well as to the wider economy. Indeed a study carried by the UK Government has demonstrated that, “in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained.”

Although this is an impressive achievement, the job is far from complete. Many Special Protection Areas are in poor condition, and in need of restoration, active management and funding. The latest reports produced by Member States on the status of Europe's bird populations show that many bird species are still in danger.

One of my priorities at the beginning of my five years was biodiversity and one of my first tasks was to help secure a global agreement on halting biodiversity loss. I was very pleased that we managed to achieve that in Nagoya in 2010. However, achieving these targets is an enormous challenge, and a study recently published by RSPB Scientists in the Journal Science has found that, almost halfway towards the 2020 deadline, these targets are unlikely to be met at global level.

Nonetheless, EU Member States have committed at the highest political level to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity and of ecosystem services by 2020: a commitment that is reflected in the EU Biodiversity Strategy. This strategy includes the goal of achieving a significant improvement in the status of birds. The EU will publish a mid-term assessment of its progress towards meeting these targets in 2015.

Why are so many bird populations still not doing well? The main threats are land fragmentation, urbanization, habitat deterioration such as the destruction of wetlands, farming practices including the use of pesticides and monoculture, fishing by-catch, high levels of predation, unsustainable hunting, and of course, climate change.

The Birds Directive and Habitats Directive can and are helping us to address these threats through effective conservation action, but environmental policies alone will not solve all of our problems.  My five years as Environment Commissioner have taught me that it is essential that environmental considerations must be integrated into all policy areas from the beginning. If our agriculture, industry, transport and many other policies do not take the environment into account then we will inevitably face conflicts further down the line.

Citizens from the UK and across Europe value a healthy and biodiverse environment, not just for the services it delivers, or the income it generates, but for the joy of being able to experience nature, of seeing wild creatures in their natural environment.

But it is not just citizens that value an EU approach to environmental protection. In May this year, I attended the launch of a joint statement by CEMEX, a global leader in the Building Materials industry, and BirdLife Europe, supporting the Birds and Habitats Directives as an appropriate and effective legal instrument for biodiversity conservation. Many other businesses have voiced support for the role the Directives play and value the clarity and stability that they bring to decision making

Citizens in the UK and across Europe look to the European Union to do more to protect their environment and wildlife. In 2013 the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee, which responds to Petitions received from EU citizens on all aspects of EU action, spent more Committee time debating issues of environmental significance than any other sector of activity. A recent Europe-wide survey found that 95% of European Citizens feel personally concerned about the environment.

The European Commission is also highly active in enforcing environmental legislation. At any one time there are around 300 cases ongoing against Member States for breaches of EU environmental law.

My experience as the Commissioner has also taught me that my successor will have to be active, persistent and committed in order to secure continued protection for the environment, and achievement of the EU’s biodiversity conservation targets. In particular he will have to pay as much attention to what his colleagues are doing as he does to his own portfolio. He should feel reassured that he has a level of public and business support that would be the envy of many other Commissioners.

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