IP/08/1803 Brussels, 27 November 2008 Environment: Commission closes cases against Portugal and United Kingdom

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Brussels, 27 November 2008

Environment: Commission closes cases against Portugal and United Kingdom

The European Commission has decided to close two cases of nature protection infringements in Portugal and the UK. Both countries were being challenged by the Commission over their national designations of protected areas, which are a requirement under the Habitats and Birds Directives. Portugal has now brought in sufficient protection for Steppic birds and for the Bonelli's eagle, while the UK has upgraded its protection of bog habitats in Cumbria, and for Atlantic salmon spawning sites on the river Faughan in Northern Ireland. The Commission is therefore able to close both cases. The protected areas are part of Natura 2000, a Europe-wide network of protected areas set up to protect biodiversity and halt species loss.

Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas said: "Europe's biodiversity is under threat as never before, so enforcing environmental legislation is more crucial. I am pleased to see that Portugal has now made important progress in the designation of sites for the protection of wild birds. I am equally pleased to see that the United Kingdom has filled the remaining gaps in its terrestrial network of protected sites of EU conservation importance."

A long-running case with Portugal closes

A decision by Portugal to designate a number of new areas to protect wild birds has enabled the Commission to close a long-running case against the country for failure to implement nature protection legislation.

Under the EU Wild Birds Directive,1 Member States are obliged to designate sites for threatened wild bird species. Shortcomings were detected in Portugal's protection of Steppic habitats – dry, treeless open farmland areas that support species including the Great Bustard (Otis tarda), the Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax) and the Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni). These species are particularly threatened, and have suffered declines due to land use changes. The Commission first referred Portugal to Court for insufficient SPA designation in 1999, but the case was suspended following subsequent progress on designation. A review then showed that Portugal needed to do more for steppic birds, and the Commission relaunched the case.

In February 2008, Portugal designated 8 new Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for steppic birds: Vila Fernando, Veiros, São Vicente, Piçarras, Monforte, Reguengos, Évora, Cuba/Alvito, and Torre da Bolsa in October, and approved 2 new SPAs (Monchique and Caldeirão) for Bonelli's eagle, another cause for concern.

Negotiations will continue for a small number of areas, but the important progress made has enabled the Commission to close the infringement file.

Better nature protection in the UK

The Commission has also decided to close a long standing infringement case against the United Kingdom over a failure to propose sufficient Sites of Community Importance under the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC). The UK had been threatened with referral to the Court of Justice, but as it has agreed to a substantial increase in the number of nature protection sites, the Commission is dropping the case. The decision comes in response to the proposal of Bolton Fell Moss in Cumbria, a site important for its degraded raised bog habitat, and the River Faughan and its tributaries in Northern Ireland for Atlantic salmon. This brings to three the total number of sites proposed or designated for salmon in Northern Ireland. There are 21 in the UK as a whole, protecting key habitats where fish returning from the Atlantic can spawn.

European nature legislation

Europe's nature is protected by two key pieces of legislation, the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. Under the Birds Directive, Member States are obliged to designate all of the most suitable sites as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the conservation of wild bird species. To assess whether Member States have complied with their obligation to classify SPAs, the Commission uses the best available ornithological information. Where the necessary scientific information is lacking, national inventories of Important Bird Areas (IBAs), compiled by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Birdlife International, are used. While not legally binding, the IBA inventory is based on internationally recognised scientific criteria. The Court of Justice has already acknowledged its scientific value.

The Habitats Directive requires Member States to propose sites of Community Importance (SCIs) for the conservation of natural habitat types, and once these areas have been formally adopted by Commission Decision, to designate them as Special Areas of Conservation within 6 years. Together, SPAs and SACs form the Natura 2000 network of protected areas, which is the EU's most important instrument for conserving natural habitats and the animal and plant species they contain.

Legal Process

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations by a specified date, usually two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, normally two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

For current statistics on infringements in general, please visit the following web-site:


1 Council Directive 79/409/EEC of 2 April 1979 on the conservation of wild birds

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