For much of this year, the RSPB has been campaigning to defend the EU Birds and Species & Habitats Directives (known as the Nature Directives) – powerful laws that protect habitats and species across the EU. With the help of our supporters, and in concert with hundreds other organisations in the UK and across Europe, we have made the case that these laws work - they are good for wildlife, good for business and good for people.  The European Commission and governments across the EU should not be tempted to alter the directives.  Instead they should focus their finite political energy on improving their implementation.  

On Thursday last week the European Commission published “draft emerging findings from the evaluation study for the Birds and Habitats Directives Fitness Check”. We have been looking forward to the publication of these findings with great anticipation, and not a little trepidation.  This report has the potential to affect the future of nature conservation, and indeed of our wild places and species, for years to come.

Before I give you our view on this report, here's a reminder of the story so far...

The Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directives was announced in October 2013, and was initially intended as an independent, evidence-led assessment of whether these laws were fit for purpose. However, the instructions issued to the new Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella in 2014 by Jean Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, were to merge and modernise the Directives regardless of the what the Fitness Check actually found. Given President Juncker's focus on economic growth and reducing constraints on business, the instruction was widely perceived as an order to weaken laws that have been instrumental in protecting wildlife across Europe.

On Friday, hundreds of people representing NGOs, businesses, academia, farmers, and the European Commission itself will meet for an important conference. In a conference centre in the heart of Brussels, delegates from all over Europe will present their views on the Commission’s draft conclusions on their review of the Nature Directives. This report is our first indication yet as to how the review (called the ‘Fitness Check’) is progressing. The RSPB's Chief Executive, Mike Clarke, is speaking at the event and he will offer his views through this blog on Friday.

The headline message from the report is reassuring: the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, and any problems with them are a consequence of poor implementation and enforcement.  The report states that they make a ‘major contribution to the EU’s biodiversity target’, but that complementary action – especially in key policy areas such as agriculture – is essential to halt the loss of biodiversity.

People power is reflected in the report too. Highlighting the unprecedented half a million people who responded to the public consultation earlier this year through the Nature Alert campaign (including 65,000 RSPB supporters and a large percentage also coming from supporters of Birdlife partners), the authors state that "there is a strong consensus among Europeans about the importance of nature protection".  A summary of the results from the public consultation was also published last week, and we were delighted to see that each of the 520,000 responses to the consultation through Nature Alert was treated as an individual response, just as they should be.

Whilst the findings outlined in the report are extremely welcome, in many ways they should not come as a surprise. The report is based on a wealth of evidence collected from NGOs, scientists, and businesses who have experience of making the directives work.  What's more, the findings complement a similar review conducted by the UK Government in 2012. Attention needs to focus on improving implementation to improve the management of important places, drive recovery of threatened species but also (as I wrote previously here) to come up with innovative ways of dealing with the well-rehearsed concerns regarding current approaches to safeguarding protected species such as bats and great crested newts.

The challenge now for all involved in the next stages of this long and complicated process, is to make sure that this review remains focussed on the evidence.  Any deviation from this point will clearly be a consequence of political interference.

We’ll be covering the debate at Friday's conference live on social media. Campaigners from our Nature Alert partners will be outside the event – reminding those attending of the 520,000 citizens across Europe who responded to the consultation. You’ll be able to ask questions in real time of our colleagues attending the event, and we’ll be sure to share all the action from inside and outside the conference.  Keep an eye on @Natures_Voice for further details.

In the meantime, why not have a look at the Commission's report and let me know what you think.

It would be great to hear your views.

  • Just shows how many wonderful geeks are out there!

  • What a fantastic outcome - congratulations to RSPB for its leadership, and to every one of the 500,000 people who responded - and to the EU for actually taking it all on board. This is only the beginning: we need to pile in hard behind the success to support the Commissioner and to drive home the message that the idea of the environment as a major constraint on economic development is no more than the divisive myth most of us realised from the beginning. And, beyond that, I hope the environment - and the unity it has generated across Europe - will play an increasing role in the debate about the UK's future in Europe, ever more so as the European Directives look increasingly like the main bastion defending our environment from our own Government. And isn't it incredible that what on the surface looks such a complex, geeky issue has attracted such popular understanding and support ?