Within the framework of the evaluation of the EU legislation (“REFIT”), the EU Commission over recent months has also carried out a fitness check for the protection of the environment. The result of this process is the “Action Plan for nature, people and the economy”, which since then has been intensively discussed in Brussels. Overall, the fitness check has reached the conclusion that the current environmental protection directives are fulfilling their purpose. However, putting the existing legal bases into practice shall become more effective to ensure that both population and the economy also benefit.
The “Action Plan for nature, people and the economy” defines four key aspects and 15 more or less concrete measures to improve the practical implementation of the environmental protection directives. These reach from more effective approval procedures to an improved integration of the affected population, whereby in particular young people shall be involved more actively. The exchange of knowledge shall be improved by a joint platform and affirmative action shall be developed. Positive exploitation of the Natura 2000 areas shall be recognised stronger than is currently the case.
On June 6, the Commission, together with the Committee of the Regions and the Maltese Council Presidency, organised a Conference on this Action Plan. The Vice President of the EU Commission, Frans Timmermans, pointed out that Europe could only be competitive if the continent would take care of its nature. He commented that it was not a question of technologies or money to successfully engage in environmental protection. On the contrary, it was of vital importance for everyone working towards the same objective.
Another event on June 7, which had been organised by CEEweb for Biodiversity, focussed on the question how population and economy might benefit from nature and protected areas respectively. The chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety ENVI, Benedek Jávor, commented that designating a Natura 2000 protected area would not mean an economic standstill, but that, on the contrary, it could contribute to achieving an economic boom. Intact nature is prerequisite, in particular for tourism, but also for agriculture and wellbeing. Another factor is the compensatory effect of the natural landscape, for example to protect against floods or to improve air quality.
One of the European Union first objectives was to integrate environmental protection and biodiversity into its spectrums of tasks. As early as 1979, the Birds Directive was an important step towards conserving wild bird species in Europe. In 1992, based on the Habitats Directive, numerous plants, birds and habitats were rated worthy of protection. Together, these two Directives form the legal basis for the designation of protected areas under the title “Natura 2000”, whose network links the so classified protected areas within the EU. In doing so, currently about 18 % of the land surface and 6 % of the sea areas in the EU are covered, making it the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world.
In this context, each Member State determines, in accordance with ecological terms, the habitats rated worth protecting, which subsequently will be evaluated by the European Commission. The objective is to find sufficient areas, which secure biodiversity, whilst at the same time forming a consistent and cross-border network. However, in practice it is exactly the designation of new protected areas, which time and again is met with local opposition, as the local population regards the economic development of these areas as being under threat. At the beginning of the year, the Commission identified shortcomings with regard to the designation of new protected areas in the country reports on the implementation of EU environmental policy, because of which even infringement proceedings might be initiated against Austria.