Legal bid to strengthen EU habitat rules

Member states "should nominate ecologically valuable sites irrespective of economic importance"

A European Court of Justice advisor has proposed strengthening the 1992 EU habitats directive by requiring member states to exclude economic considerations when deciding whether to designate sites to become part of the Natura 2000 ecological network. Only the presence of endangered habitats or species listed in the directive should be taken into account, advocate general Philippe Léger recommended on Tuesday.

The case was forwarded by the high court of England and Wales, which asked the Luxembourg judges to rule on a dispute between the operator of the port of Bristol, First Corporate Shipping (FCS), and the UK government concerning designation of the Severn Estuary as a potential special conservation area under the habitats directive.

The UK environment ministry proposed designating the area because a major part was already classed as a special protection area under the 1979 wild birds directive. This was challenged by FCS. The firm argued that designation would inhibit its activities, and that the habitats directive expressely required governments to "take account of economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics".

In his opinion, Mr Léger acknowledges this requirement but says that it should apply to later stages in the formation of the Natura 2000 network, not the first stage of site designation.

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031. The full text of the opinion is posted on the website under "case law," reference C-371/98

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