It’s been a roller-coaster of a year and so, as 2016 draws to a close, I am delighted to be able to report good news about European wildlife - news which also has huge significance for the future of nature conservation in the UK.

Following a comprehensive 2-year evaluation process, the European Commission announced yesterday that the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives (the ‘Nature’ Directives) would not be ‘opened up’ for revision. Instead – and in line with the evidence as to what is urgently required – the Commission will draw up plans for better implementation and increased investment.  

This announcement was made within the same 24 hours that the RSPB joined forces with four international conservation NGOs to launch a new report (here) on the lack of progress being made by all governments towards the Aichi Biodiversity targets (agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity).  Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into the tough job of ensuring humans live in harmony with nature.

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said:

Our focus will now be on making sure that they are implemented in the most effective and efficient way to realise their full potential for nature, people and the economy’.

This is great news for our most important wildlife sites as well as our most threatened species especially those which don’t respect administrative borders (such as turtle doves, seabirds and cetaceans).  It is exactly what we called for through our ‘Defend Nature’ campaign . 

The RSPB played a key part in this campaign, working with 99 other UK civil society organisations to speak with one voice in the UK, but also with BirdLife International and other international NGO networks across Europe.  Yet, we wouldn’t have achieved this success without the support of half a million people across the EU.  If you were one of the hundred thousand people who supported the campaign in the UK, I would like to say a heartfelt thank you.

You might be thinking, now that we’ve voted to leave the EU what does this decision mean for the UK?

Cotton grass on peatland protected by the EU Nature Directives (image courtesy of Andy Hay

Well, following the EU referendum result, Theresa May committed – where practical –  to converting all EU legislation into domestic law as part of the Great Repeal Bill expected next year. Therefore, yesterday’s decision by the European Commission should help ensure that these important laws continue to provide the fundamental basis for domestic nature protection as we leave the EU.  

However, there are still many questions to be answered about the Great Repeal Bill.  Can all EU environmental regulation be successfully converted into domestic law, and how will it be enforced?  The European Court of Justice has been such a powerful force to ensure compliance with these laws, so who will play this role in the UK after we leave the EU? 

The guidance and financial support mechanisms available at EU level, along with the monitoring and enforcement processes, have also played a key role in driving nature conservation progress in the UK. To date we have relied on these, and they have helped the UK Government deliver their nature conservation commitments. Replacing these will be a significant challenge.  

This is why today a group of 14 environmental organisations (including the RSPB) are coming together to launch GreenerUK – a new coalition working to make sure Brexit delivers the best for the UK’s environment.

In a joint letter to The Times, we are calling on the Prime Minister to commit to using the forthcoming Brexit negotiations to restore and enhance the UK’s environment and ensure its current protections are not lost. 

With the future of EU environmental standards now assured, we must seize the opportunity to push for as strong or better standards here in the UK.  This is essential if the UK Government wants to meet its international obligations to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 and meet manifesto commitment to restore biodiversity by 2040.

  • Leaving the EU Nature Directives unchanged and committing to ensuring they better implemented is really great news. It was vitally important that they were not diluted. Very great credit must go to the RSPB and Birdlife International for organising the lobbying process. Without this I doubt if we would have achieved this result. Also well done to the EU for receiving and accepting the message. ( what a shame we are leaving), but overall, the RSPB does it again, very  "great stuff". Thanks RSPB.