The EU’s Action Plan for nature, people and the economy

In the Commission’s fitness check, which was supported by a study by IEEP and partners, the performance of the Birds and Habitats Directives was measured against five criteria: effectiveness, efficiency, relevance, coherence and EU added value.  The evaluation confirmed that the Directives are fit for purpose, but their success will depend on efforts to improve implementation, especially regarding effectiveness and efficiency. Delays in establishing the Natura 2000 sites and management measures for them have been key factors that hinder their effectiveness. With only half of sites having management plans and important gaps in the marine environment, the Natura 2000 network has been unable to reach its full conservation potential. Other gaps include a lack of information and up-to-date guidance, weak enforcement, and poor communication between stakeholders.

To address these issues, the Commission has adopted the Action Plan for nature, people and the economy, which outlines 15 actions to increase implementation quickly and efficiently by the end of 2019. The actions fall under four priorities: improving guidance and knowledge and ensuring better coherence with broader socioeconomic objectives; building political ownership and strengthening compliance; strengthening investment in Natura 2000 and improving synergies with EU funding instruments; better communication and outreach, engaging citizens, stakeholders and communities.

Of particular importance is the Commission’s intention to launch in 2018 a series of bilateral dialogues with Member States in the framework of the Environmental Implementation Review. These will focus on the most pressing implementation issues and jointly agree key actions in a roadmap. The Council of the European Union’s conclusions on the Action Plan published in June welcomed the Environmental Implementation Review support mechanism and encourage national, regional and local authorities to make full use of these opportunities. As ultimately improved implementation hinges on political will by Member States and their regional governments, these agreements will be critical.

In its proposed resolution, the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) welcomes the Action Plan as a step in the right direction, but finds it to be insufficient for meeting the goal of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 of halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Of particular concern are funding gaps, which have been a major constraint on implementing the Directives. IEEP contributed to an estimate of the costs of implementing Natura 2000 across the EU at EUR 5.8 billion a year, and the benefits of the network at EUR 200 to 300 billion a year. Due to the unavailability of targeted funding, these benefits aren’t being realised. The most recent assessments suggest that current EU funding meets at most 20% of the estimated costs of managing the network, and that national funding is insufficient to fill the gap. In a study published in January this year, IEEP identified competition between funding, institutional capacity issues and burdensome administrative processes as key constraints, amongst others. Although ENVI’s motion for a resolution welcomes the Action Plan’s proposed 10% funding increase for Nature and Biodiversity under the LIFE programme, it calls on the Commission to review the results of biodiversity spending in the previous Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The results of this should then be integrated into the next MFF. Actions identified as crucial in the IEEP study are taken up in the Plan, including the development of Natura 2000 performance indicators for all relevant EU funds and a tracking mechanism for Natura 2000 spending. The MEPs are also calling for dedicated envelopes for biodiversity and management of the Natura 2000 network within future financial instruments for agriculture, rural and regional development.

The draft resolution reiterates that the decline in species and habitats associated with agricultural landscapes is particularly worrying and that the Commission shouldn’t wait for the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) review to include a stronger focus on biodiversity. The Action Plan acknowledges the need to make better use of the EU funding available for biodiversity under the CAP, and IEEP have helped to produce guidance on how to use the CAP to support farming in Natura 2000 so that it achieves conservation objectives. The MEPs also pointed to the lack of action concerning pollinators, despite earlier calls by the Parliament for an EU initiative on pollinators, and the Commission has responded that a pollinator initiative is being developed.

The ENVI Committee also calls for full and effective implementation of the invasive alien species (IAS) Regulation. IAS are not mentioned specifically in the Action Plan, but the Commission will be producing a new guidance document on the synergies between the IAS Regulation and the Nature Directives with a focus on their implementation. This will support Natura 2000 site managers by providing clarification on potential areas of uncertainty.

The draft resolution concludes that the Action Plan has potential but that it must work quickly. There is an urgent need for substantial and continuous action if 2020 biodiversity targets are to be achieved, and the Commission and Member States must give them higher political priority.