Vital EU wildlife laws saved! But will UK keep them after Brexit?

| 7th December 2016
White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album), Parc de Woluwé, Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Frank Vassen via Flickr (CC BY).
White-letter Hairstreak (Satyrium w-album), Parc de Woluwé, Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Frank Vassen via Flickr (CC BY).
Two key wildlife laws that underpin nature conservation across the EU will be retained intact, the EU Commission announced today after an 18 month review that generated record public engagement due to fears that they would be weakened. Now campaigners are determined to ensure the UK retains the laws post-Brexit.
Retaining the Habitats and Birds Directives is great news for nature across Europe. But we also call on the UK Government to retain all aspects of these vital laws in order to safeguard our wildlife and habitats.

Following an 18 month Defend Nature campaign run by environmental NGOs across Europe the European Commission today decided to save the EU's flagship environment legislation; the Birds and Habitats Directives.

The campaign to save the laws engaged a record 550,000 who responded to the public consultation giving the EU nature laws their unequivocal support.

Revered worldwide, and perceived to be the foundation of nature conservation across Europe, the Directives are scientifically proven to be effective - where properly implemented - delivering demonstrable benefits for nature as well as significant social and economic benefits.

"This is excellent news for the environment because the Directives - when properly implemented - provide a strong safeguard for Europe's important wildlife and habitats", said Kate Jennings of RSPB, Chair of Environment Links UK Habitats and Birds group.

"They are considered - worldwide - to be a leading example of environmental legislation, and the UK has relied upon these laws to protect some of our best loved and most iconic wildlife and landscapes for over 30 years."

ClientEarth lawyer Alice Puritz said: "This is a huge win for wildlife. These laws work and should be celebrated. Now, we need to see strong implementation and enforcement, to make sure Europe's nature gets the protection it needs to thrive."

Commission: directives 'remain relevant and fit for purpose'

The threat to the Directives arose from President Jean-Claude Juncker's instruction in 2014 to "carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats Directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation", as part of the 'better regulation' initiative, aimed at reducing regulation on business.

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella, tasked along with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans to oversee the review, said: "Our European Commission 'fitness check' has recognised that the European Birds and Habitats Directives remain relevant and fit for purpose. They will not be 'opened'.

The Juncker Commission continues to look to connect in meaningful ways with European citizens. Protecting and investing more in nature is essential as so many depend on it also economically - It  is literally a grassroots approach. 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."

However the Commission identified areas in which improvements were needed: "The challenges and problems identified primarily relate to the insufficient management and lack of adequate investment in the Natura 2000 network of protected sites, as well as to local deficiencies such as delays, unnecessary burdens for project permits and lack of adequate different assessments in regulating individual species.

"The evaluation identified the need to improve the implementation of the Directives and their coherence with broader socio-economic objectives, including other EU policy areas such as energy, agriculture and fisheries ... the Commission will develop an Action Plan to correct the deficiencies encountered in the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives."

The big mystery is why it took so long for the Commission to reach its welcome conclusion. In February 2016, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to oppose any revision of the Nature Directives.

Consultants appointed by the Commission later concluded that the laws were entirely "fit for purpose" and working well. A copy of the report was leaked in June 2016 as reported on The Ecologist.

Whither the UK after Brexit?

Over 100 UK NGOs came together in response, calling for the Directives to be saved and better implemented - not 'modernised'.

They are now calling on the UK Government to retain all aspects of these EU laws after Brexit, and to improve how they are implemented so that UK wildlife habitats and species are protected effectively now and in the long term.

"We celebrate with our European partners because retaining the Habitats and Birds Directives is great news for nature across Europe", said Dr Elaine King, Director of Wildlife and Countryside Link. "But we also call on the UK Government to retain all aspects of these vital laws in order to safeguard our wildlife and habitats."

"As over 100,000 UK citizens responded to the public consultation, it is clear that people across the UK care a great deal about the environment and are prepared to fight for its future."

The attitude of the UK government to the EU nature laws has been equivocal. In November 2015 Environment Ministers from Germany, France, Poland, Italy, Spain, Croatia, Romania, Slovenia and Luxembourg wrote a joint letter to Karmenu Vella, the EU Commissioner for the Environment.

In it they warned against tampering with Europe's nature laws, and stated their willingness to better implement the laws. But the UK's signature was missing. Theresa May's right-wing post-Brexit government may now take an even more negative view of the nature laws than David Cameron's more moderate government last year.

Keith Taylor, Green Party MEP for the South East and a member of the European Parliament's Environment committee, said: "These vital laws are driving positive conservation action in Britain. Protected wildlife sites were being lost at a rate of 15% a year before EU action; now that rate has fallen to just 1% a year."
"Wildlife and environmental issues were sidelined during the referendum campaign, but we cannot allow leaving the EU to be an excuse to erode the vital safeguards Leave campaigners maligned as 'red tape'."

Molly Scott Cato, MEP for the South West and a member of the European Parliament's Agriculture committee, added:

"As the EU seeks to strengthen its nature laws we need UK Ministers to commit to maintaining these vital protections in a post-Brexit Britain. These are worrying times for the environment in the UK. We already see hard-line Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg calling for environmental and safety regulations to be slashed once the UK leaves the EU."



Oliver Tickell is contributing editor at The Ecologist.

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