Following Friday's conference in Brussels, I am delighted to welcome my colleague, Kate Jennings, who has spearheaded the UK contribution to the campaign to defend the EU Nature Directives.  Below, she offers her reflections on a memorable day in the heart of the European Union.


Over 2 years after the European Commission announced its intention to subject the European Birds and Habitats Directives (AKA the ‘Nature Directives’) to a ‘Fitness Check’ review as part of their Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT)…

…19 months after the European Commission published its plans for that review..

…12 months after Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission pre-empted the findings of that review by instructing Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to seek to merge and modernise those laws…

…11 months after a consortium of consultants working for the Commission started to compile evidence to inform the review…

…6 months after an unprecedented 100 UK NGOs joined forces with at least 100 more from across the EU to submit evidence and to campaign against this threat to the laws that protect nature…

…4 months after a record-breaking 550,000 individuals and organisations responded to a European Commission consultation on the future of these laws (over 520,000 of whom called for the laws to be protected, including over 100,000 from the UK).

… and 1 month after nine EU member states (Germany, Croatia, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Spain) wrote to Commissioner Vella to oppose any amendment or merger of the Directives because of the negative impact this would have on action for nature and on certainty for business…

 …. On Friday in a cold and wet Brussels, over 400 stakeholders representing Governments, businesses and NGOs from across the EU gathered to discuss the draft findings of the Fitness Check of the Nature Directives. I was there, along with Mike Clarke (who spoke in his role as a member of BirdLife’s Global Council) and other RSPB colleagues who have been working (almost literally) round the clock on this issue for the last few months, and with other members of the UK NGO ‘Joint Links’ coalition, including BugLife, Friends of the Earth and WWF-UK.

Attendees were greeted by an energetic crowd of oversized wildlife – including banner-waving bumblebees, and a frog and a flamingo handing out ‘Keep calm and implement the laws’ badges! They, along with their other furry friends - were there to present Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella with a little reminder of the scale of public support for the Nature Directives – as demonstrated by those over 520,000 individuals and organisations who called for the laws to be protected during the public consultation.

The purpose of the day was to present the draft findings of the review – which Martin and Mike have previously described in this blog here and here. In short it found that the Nature Directives are fit for purpose, and any problems with them are a consequence of poor implementation and enforcement.  They make a ‘major contribution to the EU’s biodiversity target’, but complementary action – especially in key policy areas such as agriculture – is essential to halt the loss of biodiversity.  

The interesting thing was to see how stakeholders in general – and Member State Governments in particular – would respond.

Not everything that we heard was encouraging (or compatible with the evidence presented!) – but the overwhelming majority of those who spoke reinforced the key messages that the Directives are fit for purpose, and that what nature needs is a focus on their full and proper implementation, married with action to target other policies (especially those on agriculture) which all too often run counter to our best efforts to defend nature.

The German Government – a staunch defender of the Nature Directives – took to the conference stage alongside representatives of the European Parliament’s Environment Council, the Committee of the Regions, IUCN, the European Landowners Association and FACE (the European Hunter’s Federation) and the Estonian and Slovakian Governments (amongst others), all reiterating that the Directives are fit for purpose, but that greater emphasis to improve implementation is required. On stage, Mandy King of the UK’s Department for Energy and Climate Change spoke of their evidence to the review, which found that while major developers do incur costs to comply with these laws, those costs are proportionate to the risks such developments pose to the environment, and that where issues arise, these are to do with how the laws are implemented, rather than the laws themselves. From the floor, Andy Limbrick of Energy UK spoke of the importance of protecting these laws to provide a stable regulatory framework for the energy industry, and Stanley Johnson, former Conservative MEP and founding father of the Habitats Directive, also took to the floor to defend the law he wrote over 20 years ago.

However, one of the most significant speeches of the day came from Dr Hans Hoogeveen – Director General for Agriculture and Nature Management at the Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs and Vice-Minister for Agriculture. The Dutch Government has long been at the heart of attempts to weaken the Nature Directives – and early in the day Dutch Government representatives seemed to be holding this line – calling repeatedly for greater ‘flexibility’ in the laws. However, in the afternoon came an apparent U-turn, when Dr Hoogeveen stated that ‘'the Nature Directives should not be changed - that is position of the Netherlands Government”.

And the UK Government? Well – while Defra Minister Rory Stewart did not attend, it was good to see Defra officials. along with representatives of the Scottish and Welsh governments in attendance on the day. To date, there is no official UK Government position on the review of the Nature Directives, attributed to a desire not to pre-empt the finding of the evidence based review, and there’s still time for you to call on the UK Government to Defend Nature;

We can only hope that on the basis of that evidence – and indeed on the evidence of the Government’s own 2012 review which concluded that ‘in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained’ – the UK Government will soon be standing shoulder to shoulder with the ever-growing number of Member States who are taking a stand to protect the laws that protect nature..