Being an environmentalist can, at times, feel like being a boxer on the ropes trying to evade punches flying your way.   In recent years, we've ducked a few punches (such as the first draft National Planning Policy Framework, the review of the Habitats Regulations and Thames Estuary Airport), but some have landed squarely on our jaw (Lodge Hill being the latest example where local socio-economic development needs threatens to trump nationally important nature).   

Yesterday was another tough day and another punch seems to be coming our way.

President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker announced his new team and set out his priorities for the next five years.  If you care about anything other than economic growth, his agenda makes miserable reading. You can read it here.

He compounds this misery by setting his sights on the two most important pieces of legislation for nature and birds across the EU – the Birds and Habitats Directives.

President Juncker made his intentions clear in a letter addressed to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner (here), in which he calls on the new Commissioner (Karmenu Vella from Malta) to focus on assessing the potential for merging the Birds and Habitats Directives into a “more modern piece of legislation.”  Be under no illusion, this is code for weakening the powers of the directives.  Some just hate the idea that legislation might force developers to think about alternatives or that they might have to compensate for any damage caused.

As I have written previously (see here), the directives were not only designed to protect internationally important wildlife, but they were also born out of a sensible desire to prevent any one Member State gain competitive advantage by trashing the environment.

The directives have served us well.  And we have evidence to back this up.

In a ground-breaking paper published in Science (here), my colleague Paul Donald (et al) showed that the Birds Directive has successfully protected those species considered to be at most risk and in need of most urgent protection across the European Union and has made a significant difference in protecting many of Europe’s birds from further decline.  

Andy Hay's iconic image of a bittern - just one of the species that have benefited from protection thanks to the Birds Directive

Any nation that has signed up to halting the loss of biodiversity and beginning its recovery by 2020 should celebrate the role the Directives can play.  It is deeply unhelpful that the European President seems to have forgotten that the EU (as well its Member States) signed up to this commitment.

There is also growing evidence of the benefits to humans that protected nature provides. The EU Nature Directives are responsible for the UK’s modern SSSI system – 80% of which underpin and are essential to the effective management of Natura 2000 sites.  Evidence suggests that SSSIs generates benefits 8 times the investment in maintaining them.  Such sites makes an immense contribution to the wellbeing of the millions of people who visit them each year.

There is, however, no evidence that they place a "ridiculous cost on business" as George Osborne infamously said in 2011 and no evidence that economic prosperity has been damaged by the Directives.  The fact that some companies have failed to respect the Directives but then failed to get what they want is no reason to unpick them.

RSPB’s experience on the ground is that businesses that take the time to respect and understand environmental legislation experience little or no impact on their activities. Indeed CEMEX, a global leader in the building materials industry, has publicly stated (see here) “The EU Birds and Habitats Directives provide an appropriate and effective legal instrument for the conservation of biodiversity in Europe and an appropriate framework for the development of extractive activities in harmony with nature.”

The Birds and Habitats Directives together represent perhaps the best tests of genuinely sustainable development. They are effective at protecting Europe's threatened wildlife, they are flexible, they have public support, and smart businesses have learnt to respect them. Yet it seems that Jean-Claude Juncker wishes to ignore this by attempting to merge the Directives.

We fear that, in the current economic climate, a merger would result in lesser protection and the time it takes to negotiate new laws would be a terrible distraction from implementing the existing laws so that nature begins to recover to favourable conservation status - the original aim of the legislation.   

Our challenge to the new Environment/Fisheries Commissioner is not to play around with a merger. Instead, he should obsess about meeting the 2020 target, recognise that the Nature Directives offer the best legislative tool to achieving that and use his voice for nature across the Commission.  

There is a lot at stake.

Get it wrong and the EU’s credibility on the global stage as a world leader in environmental protection would suffer.

Get it wrong and public support for the EU itself could also erode. Recent polls show that 95% of Europeans feel the environment is important to them, and 77% agree that EU legislation is necessary to protect the environment. Public reaction to scrapping effective protection for nature is likely to be extremely negative.

And, get it wrong and Europe’s prosperity could be at stake.  We know that a healthy natural environment underpins our economy - a degraded environment would diminish the quality of life for Europe citizens and would be a betrayal of our children's future.  

The good news is that the environment sector intends to behave like Mohammed Ali in his rumble in the jungle with George Foreman.  We might take the odd punch, but we will not be floored and we will come out fighting. 

That fight-back started yesterday when the ten large European NGOs (including Birdlife International) shared their anger in a letter to President Juncker (see here).  He would be wise to heed our words, or he could have civil society on his back for years to come.
What do you think of President Juncker's new agenda?
It would be great to hear your views.
  • I totally share the concerns and sentiments raised here. I wonder if the irony of appointing a new Environment Commissioner from Malta is lost on Mr Juncker. We must make sure that the review of the directives is not allowed to proceed behind closed doors and that the RSPB and other conservation groups across Europe get their act together quickly to bring this to the public's attention and to press vigourously for no watering down of protection.

  • Yet again demonstrating the immense importance of the Birds Directive, I see repoted in Birdlife International's WorldBirdwatch the Spanish have just recently established 39 new marine protection areas or SPAs under the Birds Directive. The areas amount to an additional 50.000 sq kms a 20 fold increase on the pre-existing areas . Good for them.    

  • Martin,  I totally agree with your and the other comments.  I would however add to Nightjar's words  '...the increasing inability of central Government - and, by extension, the EU - to bulldozer unpopular initiatives on behalf of big business clients' that they only have to succeed once to cause damage whilst we have to get it right every time to prevent damage.

    It is nice to see NGO's fighting back but they need all the support they can get.

  • Not a lot - faced with growing opposition across the Community, the EU has shown itself unable to recognise and adapt to changing times when more and more citizens are disillusioned by weak and misdirected political leadership. Who is this meant to benefit ? More and more businesses are recognising that with political support unable to deliver their aims they must develop a direct relationship with the people buying their services. Surely companies like Land Securities which is behind the Lodge Hill development (along with the MoD) must realise that confrontation with the environment - and the many people who support it - is a risky strategy. Maybe they still believe that having Government behind them makes it safe - but a whole string of recent events demonstrate the increasing inability of central Government - and, by extension, the EU - to bulldozer unpopular initiatives on behalf of big business 'clients'.

  • I couldn't agree more Martin - as redkite says, it is essential that all across Europe who care about nature - NGOs, businesses and the public - must come together and show their support for the Directives.