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Brussels, 14 April 2009

Environment: Commission closes two nature cases against Poland

The European Commission is ending legal proceedings against Poland in two nature cases. The first case is being withdrawn following action to protect one of Europe's most important nature sites – the Rospuda river valley. The second is being closed following the completion of Poland's network of Special Protection Areas.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "I am pleased with the decision by the Polish government to reroute the Augustow bypass. It not only respects EU environmental law, but most importantly, protects one of the most precious nature sites in Europe. Poland is also to be congratulated on the completion of its SPA network."

Commission ends proceedings in two important nature cases against Poland

The first case is being closed following a decision by the Polish government not to go ahead with the construction of a bypass through one of Europe's most precious nature areas.

In February 2007, the Polish authorities gave contractors the go-ahead to start work on the Augustow bypass which would have cut through an important nature site in the Rospuda river valley. The valley is designated as a Special Protection Area for birds and is now also listed as a Site of Community Importance (SCI). It contains a mosaic of unspoilt habitats within one of the largest and best maintained primeval forests in Central Europe and pristine wetlands.

At the time, the Commission took immediate steps to refer the case to the European Court of Justice, requesting an injunction to prevent work from going ahead (see IP/07/369). As a result of this action, works on the road were halted.

In spring 2008, the Polish Ministry for the Environment organised a round table of stakeholders to assist in the process of assessing alternative routes and avoiding the protected sites. On 24 March 2009, the Polish government announced it had selected a new route for the bypass, the so-called Raczki variant, located outside Natura 2000 sites. In light of the decision, the Commission has decided to withdraw legal proceedings.

The Commission is closing a second nature case against Poland following the designation of all sites necessary for the protection of birds within its territory. Following a final written warning in December 2006, the Polish authorities have now taken the steps necessary to designate all the important ornithological sites identified as SPAs. The designation provides sufficient coverage for the habitats of protected bird species and therefore the Commission has decided to close the case.

EU 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 must designate all of the most suitable sites as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to conserve wild bird species. To assess whether Member States have complied with their obligation to classify SPAs, the Commission uses the best available ornithological information.

The Habitats Directive requires Member States to designate Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) for the conservation of natural habitat types, and to protect various listed species. Together, SPAs and SCIs form the Natura 2000 network of protected areas – 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 within 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" (second and 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 rulings by the European Court of Justice see:

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