As environmental rollback on the pretence of economic development has become political routine in Greece, a new bill submitted to Parliament in early December aimed to sanction a new set of illegal land uses and buildings, declassify burnt forest lands from special reforestation status and essentially abolish the forest maps (currently most important forest protection legal tool).
The bill titled “Acts for contribution in land and cash – Land expropriation and other provisions” was submitted to the Parliament by Alternate Environment Minister Nikos Tagaras just four months after the voting of the controversial Law 4280/2014 on housing development within forests and woodlands. According to WWF Greece, the bill constituted the latest in a series of blows to legal certainty and clarity, as it is filled with tailor-made provisions that serve particular interests and sanction illegal land developments, whereas at the same time it contravenes settled case-law by the Council of State. An avalanche of last-minute amendments completed the picture of a cronyistic and legally insecure bill that was loaded with favours and ignored the rights of all law-abiding citizens who respect the environmental commons. One specific amendment caused a storm of angry comments: three MPs from the region of Attica proposed the freezing of financial penalties and demolition acts for illegal buildings within forests.
According to WWF Greece, the bill was meant to offer political favours in politically tense times: it was hastily debated only a few days before the failed vote at the Parliament for a new President of the Republic, which eventually led to the dissolution of the Government and the snap national elections of 25 January 2015.
A campaign launched by WWF Greece targeting the bill proved unexpectedly successful: highlighting its unquestionable legally uncertain and obscure character, the environmental organisation built a strong case about the absence of sustainable development potential and the mockery of all law-respecting citizens. Through mass public appeals calling on citizens to directly address MPs, post to social media and sign a petition launched and promoted by Avaaz.org, tens of thousands were mobilised within just two days. The first 41.000 signatures were handed to all MP mailboxes on the first day of the debate at the Plenary. At the final debate of Saturday December 20th, strong objections were voiced by many ruling party MPs. As a result, Minister Nikos Tagaras withdrew the most controversial provisions, improved many others and rejected a series of particularly problematic amendments (including the one submitted by the MPs from Attica).
Using the economic crisis as excuse for the weakening of environmental legislation and policy has become particularly intense during the past two years in Greece. Armed with the policies and legal changes stipulated in the structural adjustment programme, many ministries have launched a relentless offensive targeting environmental legislation relevant to their policy domains. The Ministry for Environment, Energy and Climate Change in particular has embarked in a systematic effort to strip legislation on forests, impact assessment, spatial and urban planning of vital environmental safeguards. In the same time, the notoriously complex Greek legal corpus is becoming increasingly obscure and hard to interpret.