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EU REFIT: Ready for a close-up?

Campaigning on policy issues can be a strange beast.

Unlike traditional campaigning, where the energy used to motivate activity builds to a crescendo with an action or a protest and then leads to a response, policy campaigns can be very disjointed. Frequent periods of inactivity, intermediate pressure points and changing focus according to the stage in the decision-making process can all obscure the original aim and complicate the campaign.

In the case of European policy the time lags can be particularly long and the pressure points very disparate. Our job as campaigners is to try and maintain the campaign focus despite the vagaries of the system.

And thus it is with the EU's 'REFIT' process. The European Commission first announced its intention to do a “Fitness Check” of the Birds and Habitats Directives (known as the Nature Directives) in 2013. Defining the review process took another six months and it has now been a year since consultants were appointed to begin the evidence-gathering for the review. It’s been four months since the public consultation around plans to change the Directives, to which so many of our supporters responded.

Initially, the mood music was very sombre

The Commission expected some concern for the Directives from the environmental NGOs. But support was expected from industry, as the impetus behind the scrutiny of the Directives was a push by some EU countries (with the UK very much at the fore) because the Directives were seen as “a barrier to growth”. There was also a belief that people across the EU didn’t really care about the Nature Directives, particularly in the UK. Boy, were they wrong!

Realising the serious consequences that any change to the Directives could bring, 100 UK-based conservation organisations launched a joint campaign. Through the joint Links we submitted several volumes of evidence and then supported responses to the EU REFIT consultations. There were an incredible 500,000 responses to the survey – that’s the biggest reaction to a consultation the Commission has ever seen! One in five responses, over 100,000, came from the UK – we certainly showed we care.

In addition, the Trust gathered thousands of additional views from our supporters about how important they feel European laws which protect nature are - especially considering the UK’s irreplaceable ancient woodland has no legal protection.

The mood music has definitely changed

In November, the Commission hosted a conference in Brussels to present the initial findings from the consultants. The analysis so far shows the Nature Directives are fit for purpose – good news! – and that the major problems with the Directives are in fact a result of poor implementation and enforcement, or down to conflict with other major EU policies (such as the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP)).

Nine countries have also written to the Commission to oppose any changes to the Directives because of the negative consequences change may have on action for nature, or because of the uncertainty it may cause to business. The two principal member states which oppose the Directives (the UK and Netherlands Government) are far less combative in their tone. The unprecedented level of public engagement across the EU has definitely had an impact.

So now what?

The EU’s response to this has been to slow down the process, to allow more time for deliberation. A Commission proposal was expected in early spring 2016 with the Environment Ministers from the 28 member states voting on the issue in late spring. There is now no expectation of a proposal until the latter half of 2016 at the earliest.

Counting towards a safe future

Our campaigning has been effective so far... but we have to fight on. We’re trying to bring some creativity into the process too!

One of the most important things we want is to see integration of the Nature Directives into other, complementary, European policies. The Directives are key to achieving the EU’s ambitions around improving biodiversity, for example. Environment Ministers across the EU will meet on 16 December to discuss the mid-term review of the ‘EU Biodiversity 2020’ action plan.

To make clear the links between improving biodiversity and protecting nature, we worked with the RSPB and Friends of the Earth to create a very special advent calendar, which counts down to the day of the meeting. Behind each door is a quote from a Woodland Trust supporter and a (palm oil free, Fair Trade and organic) chocolate, enclosed in a custom-made wrapper featuring a species or habitat which relies on the protection the Directive affords.

Each of our Environment Ministers, and all our MEPs who are members of the ENVI (Environment, Public Health and Food Safety) Committee, and the Committee Chair, received a calendar at the end of November.

At the same time, we’ve been working together on an official hand-in of a summary of the campaign to give to Liz Truss, Secretary of State for the Environment, and other Ministers, in order to reinforce the strength of public feeling around the issue. The calendars should be a delicious accompaniment!

We are now planning our next steps to influence the Directives’ future. Despite how long this is taking, it’s still a hot topic for NGOs. We’ll be sure to bring you with us –watch out for future blogs from me.