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'Fitness Check' of EU wildlife protection laws raises concerns

The Birds and Habitats Directives are the cornerstone of national and Europe-wide attempts to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity.

Scientific evidence shows the directives have delivered demonstrable positive benefits for Europe's wildlife, and a series of reviews at UK and EU level have concluded that they do so without placing an unnecessary burden on business. When they are respected, they work. 

A decision about whether the Directives are fit for purpose will be made using the following criteria:

  • Effectiveness - Have objectives been met? 
  • Efficiency - Were the costs involved justified by changes achieved? 
  • Coherence - Does the action complement other actions or are there contradictions? 
  • Relevance - Is EU action still necessary?
  • EU Added value - Did EU action make a difference?

Politics at play

Although the criteria seems sensible, and the process involving stakeholders and government departments appears practical, the final decision will be a political one.

The economies of the UK and other EU Member States are under pressure and environmental legislation is under attack from those who wish to see existing protections weakened, because they mistakenly regard them as a block on business and economic growth.

But evidence is growing that nature is in crisis. In the current political context any revision of the Directives would expose them to prolonged uncertainty and leave the long-term future of Europe's biodiversity vulnerable to short-term political priorities.

Why does this matter to the Woodland Trust?

Woodland forms a significant part of the habitats these Directives are set up to protect and although the Trust does not own or interact with many sites protected under either the Birds or Habitats Directive, all of our sites are home to species protected by them.

It is the existence of effective EU legislation that underpins our own UK legislation protecting our important habitats and wildlife. So there has been no need to update existing UK level regulations such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act in recent years. But take the EU legislation away, or weaken it, and our own wildlife and habitats becomes much more vulnerable.

Impacts of the process Uncertainty about the future of the Directives caused by the 'Fitness Check' could be:

  • Bad for nature – threatening to weaken vital protection for species and habitats when what is needed is proper implementation of the laws
  • Bad for people – jeopardising the protection of biodiversity also jeopardises the wider health, well-being and 'ecosystem services' benefits that nature provides
  • Bad for business – threatening the stable regulatory framework for sustainable development that the Directives provide, leading to business uncertainty and investor risk

Joint Links

All of the above explains why we are supporting today's statement published by the 'Joint Links group', as part of a coalition of 100 voluntary organisations across the UK. It warns that the European Commission’s REFIT 'Fitness Check' of the Birds and Habitats Directives is the single biggest threat to UK and European nature and biodiversity in a generation.

The Woodland Trust recognises that the current implementation of the EU Directives is far from perfect, and this, combined with poor implementation of national laws to protect nature means there is much to improve on. Nature is in trouble: inadequate funding of conservation measures, and the failure to address a range of UK Government and EU policies (such as flaws and gaps in the Common Agricultural Policy), is still driving the loss of biodiversity, making further action necessary. 

Full implementation of the Directives, alongside more effective national protection and a review of policies that continue to harm nature across the EU, would bring multiple benefits to society and help governments meet their pledges to restore nature by 2020.