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Environment for Europeans
27 August 2019 | Directorate-General for Environment

Transforming EU attitudes in the face of ecological crisis

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An initiative to check the effectiveness of two significant pieces of EU nature legislation has given Member States new impetus to better protect local biodiversity while, at the same time, preparing for the next European Commission. 

The erosion of nature on the planet has been branded by experts as ‘a silent crisis’. Recent studies have found that biodiversity is declining at the fastest rate human history has ever seen with up to 1 million animal and plant species now at risk of extinction.

For many Europeans, the phrase ‘endangered species’ brings to mind images of white rhinos or deforestation in the Amazon. However, vanishing biodiversity is an issue that affects Europeans at home, too. Across Europe, 37 % of freshwater fish are currently threatened with extinction and, over the past 30 years, the continent’s bird population has declined by 420 million.

Tackling Europe’s vanishing biodiversity has been a priority for the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment for years. In his mission letter to Commissioner Karmenu Vella upon taking office in November 2014, President Juncker asked him to ‘carry out an in-depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats Directives and assess the potential for merging them into a more modern piece of legislation’.

This fitness check laid the groundwork for what has been a transformational period for European attitudes to a brewing ecological crisis. DG Environment gathered evidence from across Europe in order to assess whether or not the Birds and Habitats Directives – first adopted in 1979 and 1992, respectively – are still fit for purpose. During their evaluation, they consulted with public authorities, business leaders, NGOs and also invited members of the public to share their thoughts via an online survey.

Huge public response

The level of public engagement was unprecedented. The public consultation received 552 000 responses and was by far the largest reaction to any evaluation that the Commission has undertaken.

Following a high-level debate among the College of Commissioners, the Commission released its final assessment. The 2016 report concluded that both Directives are still very much fit for purpose as part of a broader biodiversity policy. However, it also pointed out that Member States need to better apply both pieces of legislation if they are to realise their full potential.

The fitness check’s findings have provided a new impetus for protecting European biodiversity, contributing to the follow-up EU Action Plan for nature, people and the economy, in April 2017, which set out how the Commission would pave the way for better implementation of the Directives.

Solutions ranged from getting more young people involved in nature protection to strengthening investment and bringing together public authorities and stakeholders to address shared challenges. The action plan also highlighted the importance of promoting the fact that biodiversity protection does not come at the expense of sustainable economic activities.

Preparing for change

Since the action plan was published, the Commission has worked closely with administrations and stakeholders in various EU Member States, providing new guidance and sharing expertise on the best ways to manage and restore Europe’s nature. There has also been more funding for nature under the LIFE Programme, the EU funding instrument that has significantly helped the recovery of species such as the Iberian Lynx and birds of prey.

These actions are helping Member States to prepare for the next Commission under the Presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, which will begin in November 2019.

The fitness check and the follow up action plan have provided a solid foundation for the next Commission administration to harness new-found public interest and stride forward, protecting the precious plant and animal life that should be thriving across the EU.

In her guidelines for the next Commission, President von der Leyen has underlined the importance of addressing the ecological crisis in the context of a new ‘European Green Deal’.

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Directorate-General for Environment