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Speech of Federal Minister Barbara Hendricks "Halting biodiversity loss by 2020: Opportunities and Challenges of the Fitness Check of the EU Nature Directives"

Speech of Federal Minister Barbara Hendricks "Halting biodiversity loss by 2020: Opportunities and Challenges of the Fitness Check of the EU Nature Directives"

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Dear Minister Dieschbourg,

dear Member of the European Parliament Gerbrandy,

dear Director Leiner,

dear Secretary General Water,

dear Director van der Meer,

dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk about biodiversity and its conservation in Europe – in particular here in Brussels at our Permanent Representation.

Surveys show how precious nature has become to the people in both Germany and the whole of Europe. Nature brings forth the most magnificent things and that is why it is so fascinating: Just think of migratory birds, flying to Africa every year and returning back to Europe - without any GPS and with a zero CO2 footprint. Or take the whales, also living in European waters, they communicate with each other over hundreds of kilometres, underwater, via their songs.

However, nature is not just fascinating, nor does it merit protection solely for that reason. Nature is also of a major economic importance, which goes far beyond just supplying us with food, raw materials and energy. Ecosystems are also suppliers of valuable services to mankind:

  • bogs and forests store CO2, making them major supporters of our fight against climate change
  • intact river flood plains filter water and reduce the risk of floods
  • insects take care of pollination
  • a healthy plant cover protects the soil against erosion
  • and nature is also indispensable in our large settlements and cities: we need her for healthy living and working conditions. It is in nature that we spend our leisure time, enjoy recreation and pursue sports.

Flood plains and bogs, forests and grassland are just some examples of habitats protected by EU nature directives. In total, just under 20 percent of EU surface area is protected: by the largest area of protected areas worldwide – the Natura 2000 network. This network provides us with ecosystem services worth 200 to 300 billion euros every year, many times the 6 billion euros in costs on the other side of the equation.

Which brings me to the heart of our event today: In 2010 heads of state and government agreed on ambitious targets for biodiversity conservation in Europe. The first of these targets is the complete implementation of the Natura 2000 legislation, i.e. the Birds and the Habitats Directives.

How much progress have we achieved towards these targets? In Germany, first results can be seen: Species have returned or their population is expanding, for example the wild cat, the beaver and the otter. There are also first results to be observed on the European level, for example with many raptor species.

These first visible results are very important, the respective directives only entered into force few decades ago. It is less than ten years ago that the network of protected areas was completed in Germany. But natural processes often take decades or even centuries, for instance until a bog has returned to its natural conditions or new forests have grown.

That is why these first quick results are of such importance. They clearly indicate that the directives have started bringing about change. However, when we look at the habitats which are also used by agriculture and fisheries, the results are not that positive, either in Germany or in the EU as a whole. It shows that the protection of biodiversity is not yet taken into account to the necessary extent everywhere.

Therefore we have to state despite all the success: the first target of the EU biodiversity strategy, i.e. the complete implementation of EU nature directives, has as yet not been achieved. The mid-term review published in October supports this conclusion. All in all, results are therefore quite sobering.

With this in mind I really regret that in particular the Natura 2000 directives which are at the core of European nature conservation have to undergo a fitness check at present. Fitness as such always sounds good, however, these fitness checks not only review the effectiveness of the directives but also whether they have given rise to unnecessary bureaucracy and additional costs.

To cut red tape almost always makes sense. But let me be frank: I am astonished that among the thousands of EU regulations and directives, a major part of them applying to agriculture, it is nature conservation that is particularly under suspicion of causing extra bureaucracy and costs. I think it is quite clear: We have made progress, the first signs of achievement are visible – all thanks to the EU directives with their legally enforceable requirements.

The mid-term review has also shown that it will be very difficult to achieve another target: to halt the loss of biodiversity by the year 2020. If the few suitable instruments to achieve this are jeopardised there will be no chance of achieving the targets.

Therefore, one thing is of utmost importance for me: We have to increase our efforts to implement Natura 2000. This has to be stated unambiguously in the conclusions of the Environment Council on the mid-term review of the EU biodiversity strategy on 16 December 2015.

The responsibility for this, however, rests mainly with the 28 member states. Instead of considering amendments to the directives at EU level, the national implementation of the Birds and Habitats directives has to be improved.

In Germany, both the Federal Government and the Länder have realized this. We not only reject any weakening of nature conservation standards due to the fitness check, the Federal Länder, agriculture minister Schmidt and I also oppose amending the EU nature directives at all.

Our reason for this is that even minor amendments will require great efforts, that is an ordinary EU legislative procedure. You will hardly contradict me when I say: That will take ages. And nobody knows what the results will be. Which in turn would threaten the legal certainty achieved so far: At long last judgments by the European Court of Justice and national courts together with guidelines have established planning and legal certainty. German industry sees this as a great advantage, too. It goes without saying that industry every now and then complains about additional efforts to be undertaken due to the nature directives. However, I think these additional efforts are justified, also in light of the economic advantages mentioned before.

Furthermore, the directives are sufficiently flexible. Even in Germany, a highly industrialised country, no infrastructure project has ever fallen through because of the EU nature directives.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The EU suffers to a certain extent from citizens not identifying themselves with the European Union. Very often they just note the "regulation mania in Brussels", which is too abstract to be really understood.

What is it, though, that every holidaymaker – whether hiking in Lapland, sailing on Masurian lakes or swimming in the Adriatic sea – does notice? The logo of the largest ecological network, Natura 2000 – the network which preserves our common natural heritage. This is a far more tangible and first-hand experience than anything a glossy brochure can offer.

I think that this is also why more than 550.000 citizens participated in an EU internet survey – more than ever before. And almost all of them, around 530.000, do not want any amendments to the EU nature directives. As a comparison: only 150.000 citizens participated in the EU internet survey on TTIP.

For all of these reasons I can only conclude that the best solution will be

  • to simply give the directives time to do their work
  • and to implement them to the full extent on the national level.

I have the impression that I am not alone in this view and am therefore looking forward with great interest to your contributions and the discussion.

Thank you.

05.11.2015 | Speech Nature/Biological Diversity | Brussels (Belgium)