Under article 4 of the birds directive, member states are required to designate special protection areas (SPAs) of a sufficient number and area to ensure the protection of endangered wild bird species. The Netherlands has designated 23 SPAs covering nearly 330,000 hectares. This is under half the 70 sites covering nearly 800,000 hectares identified in a 1989 survey of important bird areas, "IBA '89".
In infringement proceedings opened in 1989, the European Commission alleged that the number and area of SPAs designated by the Netherlands were clearly less than justified by the scientific evidence. The Netherlands denied the allegation on several grounds. These included a counter-allegation that the Commission had not taken account of its reply to the Commission's reasoned opinion - a reply the Commission denied having received.
On all key points at issue, the European Court has now found in the Commission's favour. The Netherlands was not entitled to take economic requirements into account when selecting SPAs and defining boundaries, it has ruled, but should have used exclusively ornithological criteria.
Having "to this very day failed to produce a single document" indicating national scientific criteria for classifying SPAs which might have underpinned the 23 designated sites, the Court ruled, the Netherlands had no choice but to use the IBA '89 survey.
The ruling is a "big victory" for bird protection, according to European environmental group Birdlife International. The case is the first in a series in which the Commission has alleged insufficient designation of SPAs by member states, Nelly Paleologou of the group told ENDS Daily. Germany, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Austria, Portugal, Sweden and the UK all now face similar condemnation by the European Court, she said.
According to Birdlife, the case could also have an important bearing on the way that EU structural funds - which support development in poorer EU member states - are spent. The group plans to use the ruling to argue for better protection of birds from development wherever structural funds are being used not only in designated SPAs but also in areas it believes ought to be designated.
European Court of Justice, tel: +352 43031; Birdlife International, tel: +32 2 280 0830.
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