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EU takes Germany to court for breaching environment laws

February 18, 2021

At issue is the country's failure to implement the Flora-Fauna-Habitat Directive which focuses on the conservation of natural areas, wildlife and plants .

Wolves pictured in the Ekelholt wildlife park in Germany. Photo from June 2020.
The European Commission has been pressing Germany to better protect certain habitats important to flora and faunaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Rehder

The European Commission filed suit against Germany in the European Court of Justice, the bloc's highest court, for long running violations of existing nature conservation laws.

For years, the Commission in Brussels has been criticizing Germany for violating the EU's Flora-Fauna-Habitat Directive, as have domestic environmental organizations.

"According to the latest information from the authorities, Germany has still not designated a significant number of areas as special protection areas," the Commission wrote in a statement released on Thursday. "Therefore, the Commission is taking Germany to the Court of Justice of the European Union."

Environment Ministry sees demands as excessive

Describing the situation as "legal dissonance" with Brussels, Germany's Federal Environment Ministry responded by saying that the Commission's demands went "too far," in the opinion of the both the federal and state governments. Their implementation would "mean an immense financial and administrative effort."

In 2019 the Commission had raised "new allegations regarding the setting of detailed conservation targets and the publication of management plans," as the ministry put it. It said that, in particular, the "site-specific conservation goals" from Brussels went "too far." 

'Years of violations'

The European Commission says that Berlin has been in breach of some aspects of this directive for more than 10 years. 

The core issue is the designation of protected areas in EU member states. This includes so-called conservation objectives to protect or restore certain species. 

However the deadline for implementing the Habitats Directive has "in some cases expired more than 10 years ago," the Commission further explained.

In 2015, the Commission first initiated a so-called initiated infringement procedure against Germany.

Since then, the Commission wrote, Germany had failed to improve the situation adequately.

"The Commission considers that the conservation objectives set for sites in Germany are not sufficiently quantified, measurable and reportable."

If Germany is found guilty by the court, fines are the probable penalty.

German nature group hail suit 'as a wake up call'

Germany's Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) said in a written statement that the court case should serve as wake-up call for the federal and state governments to take action.

It is "ridiculous" that this is still the subject of dispute seven years after this infringement procedure was opened and almost three decades after the EU Flora Fauna Habitat Regulation entered into force, said NABU's EU expert, Raphael Weyland.

The consequences of inadequate protection cannot be overlooked in the North and Baltic Seas, reminded NABU. Scientists there have recently documented a decline in the highly protected harbor porpoise in its nursery in the Sylt outer reef by almost 4% annually over the past two decades.

"Neither in protected areas nor in important migration corridors is Germany's only native cetacean effectively protected from the effects of fishing, shipping or offshore wind," criticizes NABU marine conservation expert Kim Detloff.

Financial costs of protection

For the federal government to actually implement and enforce these habitat and species protection laws, "sufficient funding is necessary," Weyland said.

Based on figures from the German government, NABU estimates that €1.4 billion ($1.7 billion) a year are needed.

These can be funded "by reallocating agricultural payments that have so far flowed as lump sums," said Weyland.

"But the current plans of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture completely ignore this and thus further risk painful rulings by the European Court of Justice," he said.

mb/msh (AFP, dpa)