TOPIC: Natura 2000


It is not a word usually associated with the European Union. From the outside, the European Union is at best a neutral normative power. The European Union is a union systematically and meticulously built upon policy and legislation; the EU is a strategy. And yet, once in a while, you stumble upon passion.

Or you hear it.

The subject of Natura 2000 had the Netherlands's agricultural interests and the German environmentalist yelling at each other in the native tongues with such language that even the translators seemed hesitant to translate.

Natura 2000 is the name given to a network of protected areas in Europe. The areas were chosen based on two directives: the Habitats Directive and the complementary Birds Directive. The first piece of legislation was adopted by the European Union in May 1992, the latter had been adopted in 1979. The Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive are similar in structure. Where the Birds Directive requires the establishment of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to "help protect and manage areas which are important for rare and vulnerable birds because they use them for breeding, feeding, wintering or migration", the Habitats Directive sets up Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) to "provide rare and vulnerable animals, plants and habitats with increased protection and management." En bref, Natura 2000 strings together vulnerable wetland habitats with large meadows and estuaries. The network of protected sites extends from Finland in the North to the Canary Islands in the South. It is a pretty hefty amount of protected land, covering approximately 20% of Europe.

The Natura 2000 project is intrinsically tied to biodiversity, and therefore to the struggle between the environmentalists and the agricultural sector.

The German environmentalist, backed by an expert present in the conference room, presented the glaring fact that land used for agriculture often squanders the natural biodiversity of an area. In his words, "the cities of Germany are more bio-diverse in pigeon species than your farm lands in the Netherlands."

For the agricultural interests this seems an insolent statement – after all, someone has to produce the food, no? If farm lands were prohibited due to their low levels of bio-diversity, all agricultural products would have to be imported from elsewhere, a highly unsustainable practice.

Furthermore, the method by which Natura 2000 sites are designated is questionable, given as these sites are recommended to the Commission by the member states, there is a lack of general standards. In practice, the choosing and then protection of these sites all across Europe varies.

Clearly, the two sides raised very important issues.

The relative versus absolute value in biodiversity. The sustainability of the European Agricultural model. And the Natura 2000 selection and designation process.

But when the conference had ended, I realized something. Nothing had been solved. Neither side had conceded their point. Neither side had changed their perspective. If anything, they had just become more deeply entrenched. But they had agreed to disagree. The European Union policy to agree stops any movement forward. How could passion be associated with policies that delicately trapezes the tight rope between such strong currents?

The European Union is an idea. It is the idea of Europe, and as such it is founded in a passionate spirit of utopian idealism.

The catch?

Reality, or what we would perceive as such.

The public does not see Europe's ideas. The public sees compromise and vaguely worded sentences. And these, are not passionate.

STUDYGROUP: Biodiversity Beyond 2010