Nature protection: Commission takes legal action against Portugal over protected bird areas

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Brussels, 31 January 2008

Nature protection: Commission takes legal action against Portugal over protected bird areas

The European Commission is taking legal action against Portugal for measures affecting two Special Protection Areas designated for the conservation and protection of wild birds. The measures violate the EU's directive on the conservation of wild birds.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "Portugal must ensure there is adequate protection of those sites it has already designated, and take steps to restore the damage which has occurred. The designation and protection of Special Protection Areas is critical in order to meet the EU target of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010."

Special protection areas

Under the Birds Directive,1 Member States are obliged to designate all of the most suitable sites as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to conserve wild bird species. The designation of SPAs must be based on objective, verifiable scientific criteria. To assess whether Member States have complied with their obligation to classify SPAs, the Commission uses the best available ornithological information. Where Member States fail to provide the necessary scientific information, national inventories of Important Bird Areas (IBA) 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, and in cases where no equivalent scientific evidence is available, the IBA inventory is a valid basis of reference in assessing whether Member States have classified a sufficient number and size of territories as SPAs.

Court cases against Portugal

The Commission is sending Portugal two final written warnings for separate instances in which it has taken measures affecting two Special Protection Areas aimed at ensuring the conservation of wild birds.

The first case concerns the Castro Verde Special Protection Area. According to a 2006 ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Portugal must enlarge the area to compensate for a motorway built through the area in 2000. Portugal agreed to do so, but no compensation measures have yet been implemented. Castro Verde is home in particular to species such as the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni), the great bustard (Otis tarda) and the little bustard (Tetrax tetrax). All three species are in decline.

The second case concerns a change to the boundaries of the Moura/Mourã/Barrancos SPA. The ECJ ruled in 2006 that Portugal had changed the boundaries of this area without clear and justified ornithological criteria, and that the boundaries should be restored. Portugal agreed to comply with the ruling, but to date it has not done so. The area in question hosts species that include the black vulture (Aegypius monachus), classified by the IUCN as near threatened, the booted eagle (Hieraetus pennatus) and the Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus).

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, usually two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the 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 see:

1 Wild Birds Directive (1979/409/EC) on the conservation of wild birds.

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