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Will there be good news for nature across the UK and EU this week?

On Wednesday the members of the European Commission will gather for their weekly “college” meeting. The Commissioners, one from each of the twenty eight EU Member States (including the UK’s Sir Julian King, Commissioner for Security Union), meet every week, but for nature this week’s meeting is particularly significant.

December 2016

On the agenda is a discussion of the findings of the Fitness Check of the Birds and Habitats Directives (the ‘Nature’ Directives). Whatever the UK’s future relationship with the EU, these laws will remain vital for UK wildlife. They ensure protection for rare and threatened species and habitats found both in the UK and across the EU as a whole. This protection is especially important for migratory and wide-ranging species, including birds like the osprey and cuckoo, and marine wildlife such as seals and porpoises. The protection they provide for the UK’s special places and wildlife is also fundamental to the UK’s fulfilment of its international environmental obligations under treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.

A Fitness Check is intended to be an independent, objective and evidence-based assessment of whether a particular law is ‘fit for purpose’; dispassionate, unemotional, apolitical. The Fitness Check of the Nature Directives has been anything but.

The instructions given to newly appointed Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella in 2014 to carry out a Fitness Check of the Nature Directives with a view to “merging them into a more modern piece of legislation” were evidence of a strong political push at the highest levels to undermine environmental standards.

As the Fitness Check got underway in January 2015, the Joint LINKs (now Environment Links UK), comprising Wildlife and Countryside Link, Scottish Environment Link, Wales Environment Link and Northern Ireland Environment Link, worked with a coalition of NGOs from across Europe to try to resist this political push to deregulate.

By mid March the Joint LINKs had submitted over 150 pages of evidence regarding the performance of these laws, including case studies and specially commissioned research. NGOs across Europe were doing the same, as were numerous business stakeholders supportive of the well-established regulatory certainty and ‘level playing field’ for investors created by these Directives across Europe. There was almost universal agreement that these laws were performing well, but that underfunding and inadequate implementation were undermining conservation efforts, and making life difficult for businesses.

On 30th April 2015 a public consultation was launched to gauge public opinion about the Nature Directives. European Commission public consultations usually attract 100 – 200 responses in total. The biggest previous response had been 150,000 to a consultation on the highly controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Protocol (TTIP).

By the time the public consultation on the Nature Directives closed, on 26th July 2015, over half a million people had responded calling for these laws to be maintained and better implemented, including over 100,000 from the UK. This staggering, passionate, vocal response – combined with the growing body of evidence – really got the attention of politicians at all levels. The European Parliament and national environment ministers in the Council of Ministers both echoed the public’s response, and pressed the Commission to put its plans for weakening these laws on hold, and to instead come up with a better implementation plan.

The comprehensive 600-page evaluation study conducted for the European Commission in support of the Fitness Check was finalised in March, and eventually released through a freedom of information request in July. Since then we have all been waiting for the Commission’s official pronouncement on the outcome of the Fitness Check, and a decision on what happens next.

The evaluation study clearly confirmed that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, effective at halting and reversing declines in biodiversity when properly implemented and funded. Implementation is, however, far from complete, and nature remains in trouble. The report identified a set of actions that could be taken to make things better, and the need for urgent action to achieve full implementation of these laws becomes more urgent with every passing day.

After so many delays, we are hoping that we will be able to welcome a conclusion from the College of Commissioners that is true to the evidence and the overwhelming views of the public and of Governments across Europe: that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose and that effort should now be focused on improving their implementation. Any other conclusion would be a travesty.

Kate Jennings

Chair of Habitats and Birds Group, Environment Links UK

Head of Site Conservation Policy, RSPB

Find me on Twitter @KeasdenKate

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.