Half a million voices: record-breaking response defends EU Nature Directives

Published 30/01/2017   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

The Nature Directives are two key pieces of EU legislation that underpin the protection of wildlife and habitats – often considered the cornerstones of environmental law in Europe. When the European Commission announced in 2014 it was evaluating these Directives via a ‘Fitness Check’, it was met with an unprecedented reaction: there were over 550,000 responses from the public. Views on the Nature Directives came from far and wide across the EU. So what exactly are these Directives? And what was the outcome of the evaluation?

The Nature Directives

The Fitness Check focussed on the EU Birds Directive and the EU Habitats Directive, collectively known as the ‘Nature Directives’. They protect more than 1,400 threatened species and nearly 1.15 million square kilometres of habitat in Europe. The Birds Directive (2009/147/EC) is the oldest piece of EU environmental legislation, first created in 1979. Its purpose is to protect the 500 wild bird species which are native to the EU, their eggs, nests and habitats. Measures include the designation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to protect habitats for endangered or migratory species. The Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) was adopted in 1992. It provides protection for over 1000 animal and plant species and 200 habitat types. A key part is the designation of significant habitats as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs). The Habitats Directive brings together SACs and SPAs into the Natura 2000 network, a coherent ecological network of protected sites. Despite these protection measures, biodiversity loss within the EU remains a concern. The State of Nature Report 2016 , for example, found that one in 14 species in Wales is heading for extinction. More information on the report can be found in a previous In Brief blog post.

The Nature Directives in Wales

The provisions of the Directives are implemented through a range of legislation including the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Offshore Marine Conservation Regulations (Natural Habitats, & c.) 2007 (as amended). In 2015, the UK had 924 Natura 2000 sites, covering 95,106 square kilometres (8.54%) of terrestrial and marine land. Wales currently has 20 SPAS and 92 SACs. More information can be found on the websites of Natural Resources Wales and Welsh Government.

The Fitness Check

The Fitness Check forms part of a wider effort known as REFIT – the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme. REFIT aims to review the entire stock of EU legislation to ensure it is simple, fit-for-purpose, and that it delivers its intended benefits. The Fitness Check assessed the Nature Directives against 5 main criteria:

  • Effectiveness – have the objectives of the legislation been met?
  • Efficiency – were the costs involved reasonable?
  • Coherence – is the legislation contradicting or complementing other policy and legislation?
  • Relevance – is EU action still necessary?
  • EU added value – could similar changes have been achieved at national or regional level, or did EU action provide clear added value?

The substantial public response was largely due to campaigning by environmental NGOs. The ‘Nature Alert’ coalition, for example, brought together over 120 European NGOs, and was responsible for 90% of responses from the public. Campaigns were also carried out by alliances in other sectors such as landowners, forestry and hunting. Reponses were also submitted by the private sector including commerce and energy companies. The evaluation was also informed by previous outputs such as the mid-term review of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy and the Commission’s 2015 report ‘State of Nature in the EU’.

Key facts and figures

In the Fitness Check evaluation report (PDF 1.98MB) key figures include:

  • 552,472 responses to the public consultation;
  • 105,033 (19.0%) of these came from the UK, making the UK response the second highest after Germany (which had 106,357);
  • in 2011, the Natura 2000 network directly and indirectly supported between 4.5 and 8 million jobs across the EU; and
  • the estimated cost of implementing Natura 2000 across the EU is at least €5.8 billion (£5.1 billion) per year, while the benefits are valued at €200 – 300 billion (£173 – 260 billion) per year.

The outcome

In December 2016, the European Commission published the outcome of the Fitness Check. Whilst concluding that the Directives are fit for purpose, it also identified scope for improvement in implementation:

Within the framework of broader biodiversity policy the Nature Directives are fit for purpose but fully achieving their objectives and realising their full potential will depend on substantial improvement in their implementation in relation to both effectiveness and efficiency, working in partnership with different stakeholder communities in the Member States and across the EU, to deliver practical results on the ground.

The European Commission announced on 7 December 2016 that it would uphold the Directives and develop an Action Plan to tackle some of the implementation challenges which had been identified.

Brexit and nature conservation

The Fitness Check has highlighted the important role that the Nature Directives play in nature conservation. In the context of the proposed UK withdrawal from the EU, what does the future hold for nature conservation in Wales? To help answer this question, Assembly Committees have been examining the potential implications of Brexit for the environment. More information can be found in the In Brief blog post ‘Brexit and the environment: the UK legislature’s preparations for leaving the EU’.

Article by Jeni Spragg, National Assembly for Wales, Research Service The Research Service acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Jeni Spragg by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which enabled this blog post to be completed.