European Court strengthens Natura 2000 rules

Judges rule that governments must only assess environmental factors when nominating sites

European environmental groups were celebrating today after the European Court of Justice ruled that EU member states could not take economic or similar considerations into account when deciding whether to nominate sites for protection under the 1992 habitats directive. The judgement is in line with a 1997 European court ruling relating to the 1979 birds directive, and confirms the opinion of the court's advocate general in the current case (ENDS Daily 9 March).

Under the habitats directive, EU countries should have nominated a full list of sites containing examples of endangered habitats or species listed in the legislation within three years. When all lists are in, the European Commission is supposed to work with member states to define which of the nominated sites should be designated as "special areas of conservation" (SACs) under the habitats directive and thus become part of the Natura 2000 network.

Today's judgement responds to a request from the high court of England and Wales in a dispute between the UK government and First Corporate Shipping (FCS), operator of Bristol docks on the Severn estuary. The company had objected to moves to nominate the estuary to join Natura 2000, arguing that article 2(3) of the habitats directive required member states to "take account of economic, social and cultural requirements and regional and local characteristics".

The court has rejected this argument. To produce a draft list of SACs, the Commission "must have an exhaustive list of the sites which, at national level, have an ecological interest," its ruling reads. When a member states draws up its national list "it is not in a position to have precise detailed knowledge of the situation of habitats in the other member states". Therefore, "it cannot of its own accord, whether because of economic, social or cultural requirements or because of regional or local characteristics, delete sites which at national level have an ecological interest".

The judgement "is a vitally important result for nature conservation in the UK and the rest of the EU," Dave Burges of WWF's UK branch said today. Sandra Jen of WWF's Brussels office added that the ruling would have "clear implications" for all member states that have been challenged by the European Commission for nominating too few sites.

Follow Up:
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031, and the judgement in case C-371/98.

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