Select Committee on European Communities Twenty-Second Report


Note of meeting held at the offices of the United Kingdom Permanent Representative
to the European Union, Brussels, on Wednesday 21 April 1999
Present:The Earl of Cranbrook
The Countess of Mar
Lord Walpole
Mr Carlos Martin-Novella (European Commission, DG XI)
Mr Micheal O'Briain (European Commission, DG XI)
Mr Thomas Radice (Clerk to Sub-Committee C)

Convention on Biological Diversity

1  Mr Martin-Novella explained that he was the official responsible for co-ordinating the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity within the European Commission.

2  The Convention was a legally binding instrument; EU Member States were parties to it individually, as well as the Community in its own right. The Community was a leading force in implementing the Convention: it had full competence in some policy areas relevant to the Convention, such as agriculture and fisheries, while in other areas of policy competence was mixed or lay with the Member States. Within the Commission, DG XI (since renamed DG Environment) took the lead.

3  Key documents were the Commission's Communication of February 1998 on a European Community Biodiversity Strategy[44] (endorsed by the Council on 4 October 1998) and the Commission's First Report on the Implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity by the European Community.[45]

4  As the First Report indicated, over 70 Community Directives and Regulations were relevant to the Convention. The main gaps identified were instruments to ensure integration of biodiversity in agriculture, transport and other policy areas.

5  The Commission had been charged with the task of presenting a series of sectoral and cross-sectoral biodiversity action plans to the Council and European Parliament early in 2000; these action plans would be complementary to the national biodiversity strategies prepared by Member States under the terms of the Convention, and might include proposals for legislative measures. An interim progress report to the Council and the Parliament on the implementation of the Community Biodiversity Strategy[46] was due to be presented in June 1999: the Commission's services were on target for this, although progress could be affected by the process of appointing new Commissioners.

6  Relations with the World Trade Organisation were complicated, although in principle the Convention and the WTO should be mutually supportive. The Commission had had some success in securing support for its policies on biodiversity from developing countries.

The Birds Directive, the Habitats Directive and Natura 2000

7  Mr O'Briain explained that he had policy responsibility for implementation of the 1979 Birds Directive and the 1992 Habitats Directive, the objective of which was the creation of the Natura 2000 network of Sites of Community Importance.

8  Progress in establishing the network was regularly reported in the "Natura Barometer" chart, included in the Commission's Natura 2000 newsletter.[47] Progress among the Member States had been patchy: DG XI felt that the UK had done comparatively well, though its approach had erred on the side of selectivity, with a focus on core areas without making use of "buffer zones".

9  The criteria for site designation would be discussed at the series of seminars to be held by biogeographic region (the Atlantic Region seminar would be held in Ireland in September 1999). For SPAs under the Birds Directive it was a comparatively straightforward task to compile inventories of important bird areas. For SACs under the Habitats Directive the task was more complex. Annex III of the Directive contained some guidelines; and the European Nature Topic Centre in Paris had helped to develop criteria, overseen by a committee of Member States' representatives. Criteria for designating coastal sites (and, within the UK, the Cairngorms) had given rise to most controversy. The importance of adherence to strictly scientific criteria was stressed.

10  It was estimated that Natura 2000 sites would account for some 15% of the current territory of the EU. It would be dangerous, however, to set indicative percentages for individual Member States' designations.

11  Concern about nature conservation was widespread in the EU, although Spain, Ireland and France recorded higher levels of citizens' complaints than the UK. About 50% of the complaints referred to DG XI by the European Parliament's Petitions Committee were on nature conservation matters. These created a potential overload problem for the Commission. It was better if people could exhaust national remedies first before having recourse to the EU institutions.

12  The financial instrument LIFE, of which half went on nature conservation (mainly on demonstration projects) was a useful tool but its scope was limited. There was a need for more financial support through other programmes, e.g. as proposed under Agenda 2000.

Comments on the Sub-Committee's invitation for evidence

13  Some further comments were offered by both speakers on the Sub-Committee's invitation for evidence:

    (a)  Benefits of the Directives generally

      Despite slow progress (on which the Commission was contemplating taking enforcement action against certain Member States), the Birds and Habitats Directives had to date brought more benefits for nature conservation in Europe than any other measures.

    (b)  Species particularly at risk

      Nevertheless, on the basis of research by the RSPB among others, particular species remained at risk, notably birds associated with farmland. For protecting some rare species there was no alternative to site designation. Set-aside policies could be critical. At present the problem was one of inflexibility, driven by subsidies. In fact, it was possible for set-aside to be managed on the principle of crop rotation, to match the species' life cycles.

    (c)  Marine habitats

      The Habitats Directive did not sufficiently address marine habitats. There was a problem of typology. In consequence marine sites were under-represented. A LIFE-funded joint project between the UK (JNCC) and Ireland had developed a classification scheme which the EEA was now developing into an EU-wide scheme.

44   COM (98) 42 Final. Back

45   Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 1998, ISBN 92­828­2899­9. Back

46   Since published as Commission Staff Working Paper European Community Biodiversity Strategy: Progress Report on its Implementation, June 1999, SEC(1999)1290, 4 August 1999. Back

47   For a general description of the process and progress up to summer 1999, see the 18th Report (1998-99) of the House of Lords European Communities Committee, Biodiversity in the European Union: Interim Report (United Kingdom Measures), HL Paper 100, paragraphs 11-21. Back

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