These huge fines are the Court of Justice’s response to the complete contempt with which Mr Szyszko treats its emergency ban on logging.
Fifteen of the EU’s most senior judges have upheld an emergency ban on logging in Poland’s Białowieża Forest, and will impose fines of at least €100,000 a day if the government does not immediately comply.
At a hearing yesterday, the judges rejected the Polish environment minister Jan Szyszko’s arguments that the logging is essential for public safety, saying this only applies to trees near main roads and major infrastructure in the forest.
Polish authorities have claimed that they are removing trees to tackle a bark beetle infestation. Last year, the government approved a plan that would allow a threefold increase in logging in the pristine woodland, which covers around 140,000 hectares on the border between Poland and Belarus, parts of which are untouched by humans.
Chainsaws and harvesters
The European Commission launched the legal case in 2016, after a formal complaint by legal campaigner group ClientEarth and seven other campaigning organisations.
Scientists have backed the campaigners’ case, arguing that bark beetles are not a threat to the forest, and that the dead trees that are also being removed are extremely important for the biodiversity of the forest. The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has also urged Poland to stop the logging.
The case has been fast-tracked at every stage. In July, the ECJ ordered all chainsaws and harvesters to be stopped immediately while it considered the case. EU judges issued the emergency ban due to intensive logging taking place in the forest, which is in breach of EU nature laws.
The latest data from Poland’s forest administration shows that between January and August this year, the logging volume topped 138,000 m3. This is about 140,000 trees, including many cut down in the oldest parts of the forest, according to ClientEarth.
The court yesterday agreed with the commission that the logging would cause “serious and irreparable damage” to the forest, and that this would be impossible to rectify afterwards.
The Polish government has not provided reasons why halting logging for a few months until a final judgment on the case is handed down by the court was likely to cause damage to the forest.
In the absence of detailed information on the harm likely to be caused in the short term by the spruce bark beetle, it is more urgent to prevent the damage that a continuation of the operations at issue would cause to the protected site, the court said.
The ECJ also rejected a claim by the Polish government that the commission should lodge a security payment of around €750,000,000, which it claims is the cost of complying with the court order. The court said that such a payment was only appropriate in cases where the complainant was at risk of becoming insolvent if it later had to pay compensation, which was not true of the EU.
The formal warning sets a new precedent as financial consequences have never before been applied at this stage of a case, according to ClientEarth.
ClientEarth lawyer Agata Szafraniuk said: “These huge fines are the Court of Justice’s response to the complete contempt with which Mr Szyszko treats its emergency ban on logging.
“Currently, financial penalties are, unfortunately, an essential tool to ensure that the best-preserved primeval forest in Europe is protected from further harm. Trees are still being cut down every day, so the court prescribed this measure to guarantee the full protection of this unique forest, and to avoid irreparable damage,” she said.
Robert Cyglicki, director of Greenpeace Poland said: “This is a groundbreaking decision for the Bialowieza Forest. The Polish people should not have to pay for minister Szyszko’s horrible decisions. To avoid financial penalties, the heavy logging machines must stop destroying the forest now, and leave these century-old trees in the forest to decay naturally.”
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.