Regular readers of this blog will know that the Birds and Habitats Directives (the ‘Nature Directives’), the laws that represent the cornerstone of nature conservation in the UK and across Europe, are currently undergoing a ‘fitness check’ to assess whether they are still ‘fit for purpose’. Over half a million people, including more than 100,000 from the UK, wrote to the European Commission last year calling for these laws to be better implemented and enforced.  Today, I am delighted to welcome Ariel Brunner, Senior Head of Policy at Birdlife International - Europe and Central Asia Division, to explain what the results of the ‘fitness check’ might mean for the future of nature conservation in Europe. 


In November last year, following a comprehensive consultation and evidence-gathering phase, the draft findings of the European Commission’s ‘fitness check’ of the Nature Directives were finally published.

As I wrote at the time in this article, the overwhelming body of evidence pointed clearly to the conclusion that the Nature Directives were ‘fit for purpose’, delivering demonstrable benefits for biodiversity without imposing excessive costs on businesses and landowners. There was simply no justification for the calls that had previously been made for an “overhaul” or “merging” of these important laws.

However, scientific evidence is not always enough, which is why the more than 520,000 people that responded to the Nature Alert/Defend Nature campaign last year have been so important in getting the message across to politicians that these Directives are critical to saving Europe’s biodiversity and must not be weakened, but rather properly and forcefully implemented. The response from both European Parliament and individual Member State governments (via the European Council) also makes that very clear.

 We are still waiting for the European Commission to publish its take on the findings of the ‘fitness check’, and to set out what happens next. However, we at BirdLife International strongly believe that ‘business as usual’ will not be sufficient to halt and reverse the loss of Europe’s biodiversity. As the State of Nature in the EU report made clear last year, nature remains in crisis.

 We need action to tackle the fundamental issues identified by the ‘fitness check’ – inadequate implementation and enforcement, a consistent lack of funding, and the failure of other EU policies to play their part – which is why today we are publishing our own report, “From Alert to Action”  summarising the findings of the ‘fitness check’ and presenting our proposals for what needs to happen next.

 It’s not rocket science, but together these proposals can deliver better outcomes for people, for businesses, and for nature:

  • Improved implementation: the effective conservation of the species and habitats protected by the Nature Directives relies first and foremost on the proper implementation of these laws. This means completing the designation of the network of protected areas – the Natura 2000 network – across all EU Member States both on land and at sea, and putting in place the measures needed to secure their long-term management for nature. Improved monitoring of the status and distribution of protected species and habitats is also vital if we are to ensure that they are effectively conserved, and that the impacts of proposed developments are properly assessed. 
  • Increased funding: it is now widely accepted that a lack of funding for nature conservation is one of the most significant constraints on progress towards achieving the objectives of these Directives. That is why we are calling for a significant increase in LIFE funding (currently <1% of the EU budget and the only EU fund dedicated to nature conservation) as well as smarter use of other EU funds such as those available under the Common Agricultural Policy (40% of the EU budget).
  • Action in the wider landscape/seascape: in addition to the Nature Directives, it is essential that other EU policies contribute to addressing the pressures and threats driving biodiversity declines. Recent reforms to the EU’s fisheries policy have the potential to improve the situation at sea if fully implemented, but the same is not true on land in relation to the EU’s agricultural policy, where the policy itself remains fundamentally flawed. 

The European Commission is expected to publish its ‘fitness check’ conclusions in the form of a ‘Staff Working Document’ at the end of June, and to set out what happens next by the end of 2016. The realisation that people across Europe care passionately about nature may have come as a shock to some senior EU officials and national politicians, but it should not come as shock to them that action to address biodiversity declines is now urgently required and is very much expected by EU citizens. The ‘fitness check’ results should be seen by the European Commission as a key opportunity to take action to drive progress towards halting and reversing nature’s decline before it is too late. Saving nature is one challenge that inherently transcends national borders.  This is why the EU must continue to do what it can to address this challenge.  

Ariel has highlight the fabulous response to the Defend Nature campaign.  I am told that the scale of our consultation response has made history! But as Ariel says, there’s more to do to ensure the Nature Directives are safe, and working as hard as they can to protect our wildlife. We’ve pulled the story of our successes so far into a fancy infographic built for sharing.  Please do help us spread the word and celebrate what we can achieve when we work together, and get ready for what's next.  It is difficult to see how governments can meet their political and legal ambitions to recover wildlife populations across Europe without better implementation of the EU Nature Directives.