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IP/10/310

Brussels, 18 March 2010

Environment: Fresh warning to Greece over nature protection shortcomings

The European Commission is again warning Greece about two failures to put into effect biodiversity legislation in a satisfactory manner. Greece has previously been taken to court for failing to designate a sufficient number of protected areas for birds, and for not providing adequate protection to the areas that have been designated. The court found numerous shortcomings, most of which have still not been tackled. Further failures to address these problems could mean another appearance in court and ultimately fines.

EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "The pressure on Europe's biodiversity has never been more intense. All Member States must do their best to preserve our remaining natural habitats. Greece has to fully enforce Europe's Natura 2000 legislation before it is too late."

Too few protected areas for birds

The Commission is sending Greece two warnings about failures to protect wild birds. At the end of a case dating back from 1998, the European Court of Justice ruled against Greece on 25 October 2007 for its failure to designate a sufficient number of Special Protection Areas (SPAs, see below) for wild birds. The court listed numerous shortcomings and identified twelve species as being in particular need of stronger protection, including the Bearded Vulture (Gypætus barbatus), an endangered species, and the Eastern Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca), a species described as threatened. Greece subsequently added a further 12 SPAs, bringing its national total to 163, and designated sufficient areas for one of the species specifically mentioned by the Court ruling. Despite this limited progress, the overall coverage remains far short of the court's requirements. Some 32 Important Bird Areas (IBAs, see below) are still not covered by SPAs at all, and the coverage of a further 67 IBAs is insufficient and boundaries will need to be redrawn. The Commission is therefore sending a final written warning about the possible consequences of these failings, which could ultimately involve a financial penalty.

… and too little protection

A separate warning is also being sent about its failure to establish and implement a coherent, specific and complete legal regime which would guarantee a sustainable management and an efficient protection of the SPAs that have already been designated. The European Court ruled against Greece in December 2008, noting that it was indeed failing to protect the existing SPAs in an adequate manner. Little progress has been made since, and the Commission is convinced that seriousness of the infringement means that the delay cannot continue. A written warning about the possible consequences of failing to comply with the ruling is therefore being sent.

Special protection areas and Natura 2000

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 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, including national inventories of Important Bird Areas (IBAs), compiled by Birdlife International. The Court of Justice has already acknowledged its scientific value.

The Habitats Directive requires Member States to designate Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) for the conservation of natural habitat types, and to protect various listed species. 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

The Commission has the power to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations under Community law, under Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The infringement procedure begins with a first written warning ("Letter of Formal Notice") to the Member State concerned, which must be answered within two months.

If the Commission is not satisfied with the reply, this first letter may be followed by a final written warning ("Reasoned Opinion") clearly explaining the infringement, and calling on the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.

A failure to act on the final written warning can result in a summons to the Court of Justice. If the Court rules against the Member State, it must then take the necessary measures to comply with the judgment.

If, despite the ruling, a Member State still fails to act, a further round of the infringement process begins under Article 260 of the Treaty, this time with only one written warning. This second round can ultimately result in financial penalties for the Member State concerned.

For current statistics on infringements in general see:

http://ec.europa.eu/community_law/infringements/infringements_en.htm

Case numbers:

Greece 1998/2345 and 2004/2311


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