Press "Enter" to skip to content

Europe’s Fitness Test against Nature

by Raul Cazan //

“If it ain’t broken don’t fix it,” Patricia Zurita, said with a smile. She is the CEO of Birdlife International and self-proclaimed ‘green economist’. Zurita believes that re-opening the European biosphere directives “risks destroying decades of hard work, dialogue between stakeholders and legal clarity built judgment by judgment, guideline by guideline.”

But this seems to be the utter desire of the new European Commission. The “junkers” call it “fitness check” or “better regulation” and it comes after they ditched 5 dozen bills from the Commission’s 2015 legal initiatives, including the package named Circular Economy and dealing with revolutionary cradle-to-cradle waste management regulations. The intentions came to surface from the moment “t0” when Commission’s President Jean-Claude Juncker (July 2014) declaimed in the plenary of the European Parliament that he would protect companies from “burdensome regulation” in order to incentivize more jobs, growth and investment.

At Green Week in early June 2015, a gentleman opens the ceremony with a sourly cracked rictus by excusing the absence of his boss, as he is “dealing with the Greeks.” At the helm there is Junker’s deputy, Frans Timmermans, and he vows that any changes to the Birds and Habitats Directives would not lower environmental standards under any circumstance. “Update doesn’t mean lower standards; some laws are from mid 70s.”

The rules as stated in the Birds and Habitats Directives, will be updated and improved after a due public consultation under the official name of Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme, abbreviated REFIT.

Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner on Environment (photo: Green Week 2015)
Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner on Environment (photo: Green Week 2015)

A business-friendly crack-opening of the two directives is, naturally(!), also supported by Karmenu Vella, the new Environment Commissioner. His take on the matter is that “all Europeans will take part into this” as the public consultation will be opened. Otherwise, “the Commission will support ecosystem services”, “loss of biodiversity at this pace costs us EUR 15 billion each year”, “shift of mindset”, “integrated approach” etc., Vella reads the good green narratives that his advisers put on paper.

Commission’s inconsistency

Exactly a year before this, the Barosso Commission was announcing with a last breath the coming glory days of the circular economy. It was Janez Potocnik’s last public stance as a Commissioner for environment.

“To be honest, we are afraid of opening the things which are connected with Habitats and Birds because the pressure is coming from the other side: they want more off the list than on the list. […] Opening the discussion will end up with a bad outcome.”

Is it such a strong lobbying for opening the Annexes of the two biosphere directives?

Potocnik laughs. “Oh yeah!”

And adds, “I got a lot of questions from your colleagues, but more from the governmental side, will we review the nature policies? ‘Cause they have a real interest so the review will be done. And we are trying to keep a line of protection: no, we don’t want to review nature policies because many of the critics are basically coming from critics [stating] that we have created a monster, which is not allowing economic development and so on, which is by the way BULLSHIT, but this is how the arguments are emerging.” (J. Potocnik)

The times of open dialogue and free discussion, at least on matters related to biosphere protection, are over once Potocnik is no longer commissioner. Vella is merely reading “correct” statements whilst the whole communication of the Commission got a twist of transparency after over 500,000 European citizens challenged the “opening” of the biosphere directives (Timmermans’ “better regulation”) in one of the biggest citizens’ initiatives in the history of the EU.


International Conventions

Markus Reiterer, Secretary General of the Alpine Convention, Photo: 2C
Markus Reiterer, Secretary General of the Alpine Convention, Photo: 2C

A piece of good news, however, lies in the fact that the EU, as a political entity is obliged to abide to international treaties that, among others, deal with biosphere protection. An interesting means of protection is given by territorial conventions that cover certain parts of Europe. A powerful example in this sense is the Alpine Convention. “The European Union is a contracting party of the Alpine Convention. This means that the EU is, at least in principle, legally committed and legally obliged to fulfill the obligations under the Alpine Convention. also the EU has ratified of number of Protocols,” declared for 2C, the Secretary General of the Permanent Representation of the Alpine Convention, Markus Reiterer. Recently, the EU has ratified the Protocol on transport in the Alps, mentions the Secretary General.

The ratification of such Protocols becomes part of European Law, hence it cannot unilaterally be changed, mentions Reiterer. The Alpine Convention also has a Protocol on “Conservation of Nature and of the Countryside” that aims at the protection of biosphere in the alpine regions. Therefore a “fitness check” might impede on biosphere related international treaties that the EU is a party of.

The same is valid for other EU policies with environmental impact. Herald Ruijters, Head of Unit for TEN-T Policy at the DG MOVE underlined the environmental works and partnerships with nature groups on different transport corridors. The Danube stands out with its monitoring for sturgeons after 20 years before reaching a compromise with groups such as WWF. “We hope to export such models with respect to Natura 2000 areas,” Ruijters concludes.

Whatever the “better regulation” might be, it is clear that it will clash with many other European agreements and even positive law. The obvious thing remains the fact that the Commission wants to smoother business initiatives and rather circle around if not utterly crush environmental obligations. It is an unfortunate example of how the European executive body is dancing on a corporate tune and brings more pressure on ecosystems whilst complicating the legislation until it gets equivocal and incomprehensible.

In times when democratic consultations and referenda are taking their toll in Europe, officials will have to take into account resorting to democratic institutions. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans, via their petition rights, expressed their their will to conserve the current biosphere legislation. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.