European Parliament in defense of EU nature laws

With 592 votes in favour, the plenary of the European Parliament overwhelmingly supported a resolution on the mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, Europe’s strategy to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. The resolution, which endorsed an Environment Committee report, sends a clear political signal to the Commission and Council to take stronger action to protect and restore Europe’s nature.


Protection of nature remains a priority for Europeans

Ioli Christopoulou* - Since 2014, the European Nature Directives are undergoing a Fitness Check, as part of the EU’s Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT). So far two phases have been completed. The first phase was an evidence gathering exercise asking various EU and national public authorities, private stakeholders and NGOs to provide evidence on the effectively, efficiency, relevance, coherence, and EU added value of the two fundamental legal instruments of Europe in the field of environment. The European Commission implements its REFIT programme claiming that simpler legislation and lower regulatory costs contribute to more growth and jobs, a priority for the EU, especially during this period of crisis.  Therefore, it’s significant that the vast majority of the 107 respondents provided supportive evidence, emphasizing that greater effort is needed to ensure proper and timely implementation and enforcement of the Directives. Only few stakeholders raised concerns about the Directives and asked for their revision: specific farmer and fishing associations and the private forest owners.

The second phase consisted of a 12-week public consultation, organised by the European Commission. Although the detailed analysis of the responses has not yet been made public, the first statistical analysis provides us with some insight: 552,470 responses were submitted, which amounts to the largest participation in an EC on-line consultation to date. This high level of participation was supported by several campaigns in support and against the Directives organised by a variety of groups including the farmer’s associations in Belgium, Germany and Finland, German forest owner associations, and the hunting office of Spain and the Chamber of Commerce of Austria, throughout the consultation period. 520,325 respondents originated from the NGO-led Nature Alert campaign that was organised by BirdLife, EEB, Friends of the Earth, WWF and at least 120 other organizations across the EU. This massive public call to keep nature across Europe alive showcases the interest of the European public in protecting nature, despite immediate worries about the economy and employment. As such, it calls on the responsibility of the Commission as well as Member States to deliver on the objectives and obligations on protecting the natural environment of the EU.

As the process proceeds to the phase of analysis, consideration and final deliberation it is important that decision-makers remember that for Europeans nature protection remains of priority concern. The State of Nature report that was published earlier this year shows that although European biodiversity is still under threat, there are signals of recovery in those cases, where the Nature Directives are effectively implemented. Europe was once considered a leader in environmental and nature policy. No time and energy should be wasted in trying to lower these European policy and legal standards, for which there is both a need and public support. Instead, it is high time to stop the rollback and push forward: to focus on ensuring effective implementation of nature legislation, improving the coherence between biodiversity and relevant sectoral policies, securing that adequate funding for nature is available and ensuring open, transparent participatory process.


Ioli Christopoulou is Nature Policy Officer at WWF Greece


#NatureAlert: vital EU nature laws are threatened

Today over 100 environmental NGOs across Europe will launch a joint online action to save European nature from Commission President Juncker’s deregulation agenda.

An internet action called Nature Alert will allow citizens across the 28 EU countries to participate in the European Commission public consultation and, by doing so, save the laws that protect nature in Europe. The International NGOs BirdLife, the European Environmental Bureau, Friends of the Earth Europe and WWF will organise and promote the e-action.

The e-action marks the beginning of a pan-European, multi-annual campaign to stop any threats to current nature protection efforts and to obtain better implementation and enforcement of Europe’s nature laws.  More than 100 environmental organisations have joined  forces to mobilise members, supporters and the general public to tell the Commission that they want Europe’s nature laws to be maintained, better implemented and enforced. 

Europe’s nature laws (the Birds and Habitats Directives) are recognised as some of the strongest in the world to protect animals, plant and habitats from extinction. Thanks to these laws, Europe now has the world’s biggest network of protected areas, Natura 2000, covering about one fifth of Europe’s land and 4% of its marine sites.

The European Commission has decided to carry out an in-depth evaluation of both laws to determine whether they are effective in protecting our natural world [2]. This process is happening in a context that is clearly hostile to nature conservation, as illustrated by President’s Juncker rhetoric on ‘business-friendly’ laws and cutting ‘green tape’.

The NGO internet action allows citizens to take part in the public consultation until 24 July 2015 and is the only opportunity for the public to express their views during this technical evaluation.

According to Angelo Caserta, Director of BirdLife Europe: “We have great weight of evidence showing that these laws work, when implemented. And numerous examples that these laws are no obstacles to any good economic development. So, my question to President Juncker and VP Timmermans is simple: with all there is to do in Europe, why undo nature laws?”

Tony Long, Director of WWF European Policy Office said: “WWF has been fighting for over 30 years to make sure Europe has comprehensive laws for the protection of nature which set a world standard. We are not prepared to stand by and let this legacy be wasted. No one will benefit from turning back the clock on Europe’s nature laws, not the natural world itself nor we as humans who depend on it for our livelihoods.  Now begins a popular appeal to keep nature alive.”

According to Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau: “The European Commission’s current fixation with deregulation and cutting so-called ‘red tape’ is blinding it to the effective solutions for endangered habitats and species. Instead of threatening to unpick these laws, the European Commission and member states should put more effort into implementing them, and make sure they deliver the enormous benefits they can bring to nature as well as to us and our economy”.

Magda Stoczkiewicz, Director of Friends of the Earth Europe said “We all have a right to nature – and chipping away at vital laws that help protect it would be a disaster for European citizens and the nature we love. We are mobilising people across the EU and will make our voices loud and clear – our nature is not up for grabs and we expect our politicians to protect it for all of us and for future generations.”


Contact: Stefania Campogianni, Senior Media and Communications Officer, +32 499 53 97 36, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



REFIT is unfit for Europe’s natural capital

In 2012, the European Commission launched the REFIT (“REgulatory FITness” and Performance) programme. In its Communication, the Commission noted that the economic crisis (aka the “current economic situation”) demands “that EU legislation be even more effective and efficient in achieving its public policy objectives”; it must deliver “full benefits at minimum cost”, aiming at a “simple, clear, stable and predictable regulatory framework for businesses, workers and citizens.”  Special attention was devoted to SME’s, and “what they consider to be the Top Ten most burdensome EU regulations”. REFIT does not ignore implementation, but the latter will focus “on identified single-market priority areas” (i.e., services, including financial ones, transport and digital economy). Hence, environment and social policy are not implementation priorities: still, they will face the scrutiny of so-called “fitness checks” – evidence-based “comprehensive  policy  evaluations  assessing  whether  the  regulatory framework for a policy sector is fit for purpose”. 

Where does REFIT fit in?

REFIT did not happen in a void: the economic crisis serves as the pretext for pressures on environment and the associated policies and legislation, both at the national and the EU level. As reported by WWF’s CrisisWatch since 2012, Europe is experiencing a going through a massive rollback in environmental laws and policies: only recently, the Commission decided to kill important new legislation on circular economy and air quality, thus stirring public outcry and going against the opinion of the European Parliament and environment ministers.

Key to the REFIT programme is the notion of “regulatory fitness”, a neologism with unclear meaning, for which all selected legislation will be checked.

“Evidence-based”, but without evidence 

What do REFIT checks involve exactly? REFIT is not a comprehensive tool for evaluating regulation – like, say, the one proposed by OECD, which considers “economic, social and environmental benefits”. According to the Commission, legislation will be scrutinised only for effectiveness, efficiency, coherence and relevance. None of these terms is defined or clarified, and their use invites a host of philosophical questions, that have not been answered. Suppose that in country X a certain human right – say, the right of every child to adequate education – is “ineffective”: does it really follow that country X must repeal it? Efficiency is supposedly a cost/benefit analysis, related to the 2005 adoption of Standard Cost Model for assessing “administrative costs imposed by legislation”: this model has never been critically assessed, is flawed for environmental and social policy and neatly ignores relevant EC-sponsored initiatives, such as TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity). It is hard to decipher what “coherence” is all about, but it seems to be about conflict of laws – an issue addressed not by policy-makers, but often by the text of legislation, and resolved traditionally by judges and legal practitioners by time-honored, well-established methods. 

A more general problem with REFIT is that although simplification is touted, the overlap with a range of evaluatory activities – e.g., ex post evaluation under the Financial Regulation, ECA audits, monitoring under specific directives, and so forth - is both wide-ranging and ill-defined. Assessments proliferate: for example, there is guidance “on taking account of Fundamental Rights in Commission Impact Assessments”, but this does not seem to concern REFIT. 

Relevance, however, is crucial to REFIT, which involves the repeal of “unnecessary and irrelevant laws”. Counter-intuitively, age is irrelevant: brand new proposals, like the ones on tourism quality principles or the dissemination of Earth observation satellite data have also been scrapped. We are told that SMEs opinion matters: however, SMEs have no qualms about the Habitats Directive, yet its “regulatory fitness” is questioned. On the other, the understandable uneasiness of SMEs with Directive 2008/9 (on VAT refund to persons established outside a member state - nr. 2 in their list) is ignored in Commission’s 2015 work program.  Thus, “unnecessary” laws include the registration of radioactive material carriers (“no foreseeable agreement”), the reduction of atmospheric pollutants (“to be modified”), and a fund for compensation from oil damage (“analysis out of date”). In 2014, the access to justice (“no effective progress”) and soil directives (“the Commission remains committed”) were also deemed irrelevant and axed, despite comprehensive EC-commissioned studies and assessments, in line with REFIT requirements. Withdrawals have not been costed, and where no solution can be found, more delays are proposed as a solution to delays, while any modicum of “evidence-based analysis” is still lacking.  REFIT does not seem able to live up to its principles.

More fundamentally, does the importance of the EU’s nature conservation legislation need to be analysed? No: the Habitats and Birds Directives have already been hailed as “some of the best nature legislation in the world”, with significant economic and non-economic benefits. What Europe needs is stronger implementation and not "a smokescreen for deregulation under the pretence of ‘reducing bureaucracy’”.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Legal coordinator, WWF Greece


Will MEPs back environmental deregulation?

In a resolution adopted on 27 November, the European Parliament expresses concerns about the ongoing revision process of the Commission’s guidelines on “Impact Assessment” (IA) of its policy initiatives (legislative and non-legislative). According to the resolution, the Parliament “[i]s concerned, however, that the draft revised guidelines are much less specific than the existing guidelines in terms of the scope for IAs and that they leave significantly more room for interpretation by the directorate-general responsible as regards the decision on whether or not an IA is required”. In response to fears that environmental impacts will be sidelined in the IA revision process, the resolution “[u]nderlines the fact that the Commission should ensure that economic, social, administrative and environmental aspects are assessed in equal depth”.

The resolution was not supported by the Greens/EFA, as it failed to uphold the often non-monetary nature of environmental regulatory initiatives.


September 2014 editorial

A team of researchers from Melbourne recently proved the 1972 “Limits to Growth” prophetic: our planet is indeed finite and we’re now seriously running out of time. Another revealing development was the recent Eurobarometer survey on the attitudes of Europeans towards the environment, which revealed that: “[t]he financial crisis, from which Europe appears to be slowly and partially emerging, did not  reduce  the  focus  of  European  citizens  on environmental issues”.

People’s awareness and concern about the finite nature of our planet’s environmental boundaries now accounts for the majority, at least in the EU: protecting the environment is personally important to 95% of Europeans, whereas 77% agree that environmental problems have a direct effect on their daily lives. So, where should environment and ecologically sustainable development stand in the agenda of the new European Commission under President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker?

It is rather unfortunate that the new Commission does not reflect people’s concern for a living planet. Its structure, as proposed by its new President, and the mission letters setting the agenda for the new commissioners reveal an unprecedented regression from Europe’s good track record in green policy making. Unsurprisingly, the hearing at the European Parliament of the Commissioners-designate was also an environmental fail. WWF and the Green 10 NGO alliance rightly called on the MEPs to reject the Commission: “time to take the gloves off and stop Juncker’s environmental overhaul”, urged Tony Long from Brussels, on the first day of the parliamentary hearings of the proposed Commissioners. European Parliament President Martin Schulz asked Juncker to include sustainability in the portfolio and mission of Vice-President Jyrki Katainen and explicitly include the implementation of the 7th Environmental Action Programme in the mandate of the Commissioner-designate for the environment, maritime affairs and fisheries.   

The writing was already on the wall of Jose Manuel Barroso’s office: the crisis and the urge for stimulation of economic activity is a convenient excuse for backsliding on key, but “not-fit-for-growth”, environmental policies and laws. The outgoing EC President put the EU’s landmark nature conservation directives on the spot for deregulation, whereas the draft directive on environmental justice was recently withdrawn. In this manner, the EU puts aside all its groundbreaking work towards a resource efficient, innovative, resilient and jobs-rich economy, in favour of the business-as-usual model of quick and dirty growth at all costs.

In these hard times, hope rises from the streets: on September 21st, hundreds of thousands rallied in major cities, in a global People’s Climate March, and called on world leaders to take urgent political action for clean energy and a sustainable world, while over 2 million signed a global pledge calling for 100% clean power. In New York, the city-host of the September 23rd UN climate negotiations, 400,000 people flooded the streets. Europe’s big cities, London, Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid, Brussels, Athens hosted rallies of thousands of citizens calling on governments and the EU to stand up as a global climate leader. 

The environment is the vital global commons most threatened by the current policy rollback. It’s high time for the environmentally concerned majority to exit the mode of silence and voice a clear demand for resilient economies that provide a better quality of life for all, within the ecological limits of this planet. 

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., WWF Greece, and Isabella Pratesi, WWF Italy



Will the new EU Commission aim for a brave green world?

The environmental failure of the outgoing Barroso Commission, most noticeably reflected in the “REFIT – fit for growth” initiative and the low ambition 2030 climate and energy package, has marred the EU’s profile as a global green leader. Will the Commission of 2014 show the necessary commitment to the sustainability pillar of the EU Treaty? That remains to be seen, as the newly appointed President, Jean Claude Juncker, lacks an environmental track record, yet he will have to lead the EU’s effective response to major environmental challenges. 

In his “five priorities” as candidate for the Commission’s presidency, Juncker makes no mention to policies on environment and resource efficiency. He does however set renewable energies as second priority, in a context of energy security and reduction of energy dependency from the East.

The new President’s stated priorities are in line with the conclusions of the June 26-27 EU Council, which constitute the strategic guidelines for the new Commission: emphasis is on security and justice, growth, REFIT, energy security of low climate ambition, and nothing on the environment and sustainable development.

“Juncker can hardly be worse than the last Commission president. He has recently made some positive statements – for example by positioning himself against nuclear energy and fracking – but we will judge him on his actions. We hope that he can help deliver the change that Europe needs to regain its global leadership role on the environment”, stated Frederic Thoma, Greenpeace’s EU energy policy adviser. 

The heated debates between the EU Heads of State and Government over the appointment of the next EC President monopolised the headlines and overshadowed the truly burning issue of Europe’s response to global warming: the 2030 climate and energy framework. The EU Council’s decision on this is a declaration of intent and postpones the real decisions to October 2014, after the UN Climate Summit. “While the political maneuverings around the choice of the next Commission President grab the headlines, the fact remains that this a complete diversion from the far more pressing climate and energy decisions that are now on the table and which matter far more to European citizens”, stated WWF’s European Policy Office Director Tony Long.  

Sources: J.C. Juncker, EU Council draft conclusions, WWF EU.



EC withdraws draft law on public access to environmental justice

Having for years remained in the Commission’s “freezer”, due to opposition by key member states such as the UK, the 2003 draft directive on access to environmental justice was officially withdrawn on May 21st. The Commission’s intention to withdraw the proposal was first announced in its October 2013 communication on the “REFIT – fit for Growth” plan to reduce regulatory burden and costly requirements on businesses. Another victim of the same decision was the Commission’s proposal for a Soil Directive (COM(2006) 232), which was also blocked by a group of member states for years. 

According to Jeremy Wates, EEB Secretary General: “A new legislative proposal in this area is urgently needed, not only to create a more democratic Europe, not only to improve the implementation of environmental law, not only to create a more level playing field for business but also in order to ensure that the EU is fully in compliance with its obligations under international law, namely the Aarhus Convention.”

The draft directive of 2003 granted certain categories of the public access to judicial or administrative proceedings against acts by state authorities that contravene environmental law. It aimed to improve the implementation at the EU level of the 1998 UNECE Århus Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters and would be based on the administrative and judicial proceedings existing in Member States.

Access to justice on environmental issues is the only pillar of the Århus Convention that has not yet been adopted by the EU, the other two being public participation (Directive 2003/35/EC) and public access to environmental information ((Directive 2003/4/EC).

Sources: EC-List of withdrawn directives, EC-Annex to COM on REFIT, EEB, Justice and Environment, CrisisWatch.



Barroso REFITs Europe for environmental deregulation?

The EU’s “REFIT-Fit for Growth” initiative, which was announced by the European Commission on October 2nd, raises serious environmental concerns. The Commission’s Communication cites the environment as a problematic policy area that needs to be subjected to “fitness checks”, whose aim “is to identify excessive administrative burdens, overlaps, gaps, inconsistencies and/or obsolete measures which may have appeared over time, and to help to identify the cumulative impact of legislation.

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