Official Journal of the European Union

C 221/108

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: Financing Natura 2000

(COM(2004) 431 final)

(2005/C 221/19)

On 15 July 2004, the Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the abovementioned communication.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for the Committee's work on this subject, adopted its opinion on 13 January 2005. The rapporteur was Mr Ribbe.

At its 414th plenary session, held on 9 and 10 February 2005 (meeting of 10 February 2005), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by a unanimous vote:

1.   Preliminary observations


In this opinion the EESC:

describes the situation as regards nature conservation in Europe, which continues to be unsatisfactory;

draws attention to the large number of political decisions, taken by EU Heads of State and Government and other bodies, on maintaining biodiversity in Europe;

sets out the relevant European nature conservation legislation and the attendant commitments to be met not just by the EU, but also by the Member States, particularly with regard to the establishment of the Natura 2000 network of nature conservation sites;

reiterates the reasons why there has to be a commitment to nature conservation; these reasons are not confined solely to the nature-conservation and cultural spheres but clearly also embrace the economic and social sectors; and

puts forward proposals with regard to the possible co-financing by the EU of measures to be taken in connection with the Natura 2000 network.


In its Communication, the Commission describes current practice as regards Community co-financing, which derives primarily from Article 8 of the Council Directive on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora (the Habitats Directive)  (1); this practice has up to now not offered a satisfactory solution to the problems encountered.


An estimate of the financial cost arising from the establishment, implementation and maintenance of the Natura 2000 network is set out in the Commission's Communication. The Commission does, however, underline the fact that a definitive, precise figure is not yet available. The estimate of the annual cost which is currently regarded by the Commission as being the most reliable points to a figure of EUR 6.1 billion (for EU-25) (2). The Commission stresses that this estimate ‘can and should be further refined’. This is a task, in particular, for the Member States, since they are ultimately responsible for submitting applications for funding under the co-financing arrangements.


It is clear from the Commission's document that the debate in the EU is no longer about whether Community funding will be made available for establishing and maintaining the Natura 2000 network but solely about how this can best be achieved.


Three possible options are discussed:

the use of existing EU funds, (notably rural development funds made available under the Guarantee Section of the EAGGF, Structural Funds (such as the ERDF, ESF, the Financial Instrument for Fisheries' Guidance (FIFG), the EAGGF Guidance Section, the Cohesion Fund and LIFE-Nature);

increasing and upgrading the Life Nature instrument to serve as the primary delivery mechanism;

the creation of a new funding instrument dedicated to Natura 2000.


After carrying out its assessment, involving, inter alia, consulting the Member States concerned, the Commission concludes that the first option should be adopted, i.e. making use of existing EU funds.


The Commission does, however, also highlight the limitations which will have to be overcome in respect of this option. Attention is drawn, inter alia, to the fact that some of the currently existing Funds are not used on an across-the-board basis, with the result that the particular regions which may include the Natura 2000 sites have been virtually excluded from such aid. As is generally known, the ERDF, for example, does not provide blanket coverage and in the case of the Cohesion Fund, too, only particular Member States are eligible to benefit from its resources. The Commission promises to remedy this matter as part of the re-organisation of the Structural Funds.

2.   General comments


The EESC welcomes the Commission's Communication, which, on the whole, provides an excellent basis for discussion. Consideration of these issues is overdue, since, despite the various political expressions of intent, no decisive changes have occurred over the last few years in the field of nature conservation which, in some cases, is having to contend with a critical situation. The Commission and the Member States are repeatedly highlighting the ongoing deterioration in the situation with regard to nature conservation. Judging by the yardstick of GDP, people in the EU have never before been so prosperous whilst nature conservation has never before been in such a poor situation as is the case at present.


The EESC wishes to draw attention, in this context, to its own-initiative opinion from 2001 entitled ‘The situation of nature and nature conservation in Europe (3) and the Commission's 2003 Environment Policy Review  (4). The EESC welcomes the fact that there is a large measure of agreement between the Commission and itself over the appraisal of the situation.


The establishment of the Natura 2000 network is based primarily on the Habitats Directive adopted in 1992. In adopting this Directive, the EU Member States and the EC Commission made two promises:

to conclude the establishment of a European nature conservation network, to be known as the Natura 2000 network, within three years (5);

to make the requisite funding available in order to ensure that landowners or land-users do not have to bear the financial burden.


Neither of these promises has yet been kept. Both the Commission and the Member States are thus urged not just to take fine-sounding decisions but also to be fully consistent in implementing such decisions.


The Natura 2000 network is an element of decisive importance in the campaign to safeguard biodiversity. Heads of state and government have repeatedly committed themselves publicly to halting the dramatic decline in biodiversity. The EESC also draws attention to the commitments entered into by the EU and the Member States under the Biodiversity Convention. Nature conservation and the protection of species are also necessary in order to safeguard genetic and biotic resources.


It is clear that the issue of the funding of Natura 2000 will be of decisive importance not just for nature conservation, as such, but also for the social acceptance of nature conservation and the credibility, in the environmental field, of both the Commission and the Member States.


The EESC notes the extremely long delays in designating Natura 2000 sites; the network has not yet been established even 12 years after the adoption of the Habitats Directive. Up to now landowners and land-users have frequently regarded it as a disadvantage to be located in Natura 2000 sites or to manage such sites. One of the reasons for taking this attitude is that the question of the financial implications of these sites has not been finally resolved.


The EESC has repeatedly stressed that, if Europe's unique natural heritage is to be conserved, a real partnership will have to be established between nature conservation, on the one hand, and the agricultural sector, on the other hand. With this aim in view, farmers who take account of the corresponding nature conservation provisions and implement them must, in turn, also be treated as fully-fledged partners by the authorities and nature conservation bodies operating at local level. In this context, resolving financial questions is a matter of decisive importance.


The presentation of the Commission's communication was therefore overdue. It has not escaped the EESC's notice that there were considerable difficulties in reaching agreement within the Commission on the formulation of the communication; these difficulties led to repeated delays in the presentation of the document.


In its own-initiative opinion, the EESC drew attention to two key points, which the Commission, too, is now regarding as especially important. These points are as follows:

Europe does not have just an outstanding cultural heritage. The various man-made and natural landscapes also represent a remarkable natural heritage which should be preserved. The continent of Europe owes its appeal and fascination to its great variety of different types of landscape and animal and plant species. The preservation of this natural heritage, in order to ensure that future generations, too, will be able to enjoy it, has become a key joint task for politicians, administrations and the general public at all levels of policy-making and administration.

Nature conservation is, however, not just an end in itself. Nature plays a vital role in our lives and in the economy; it provides an important resource for economic activities and is also a prerequisite for a variety of sporting, leisure and recreational activities, health care and some forms of medical treatment.


The EESC welcomes the fact that, in its Communication, the Commission also highlights, in particular, the economic aspects. The EESC strongly supports the Commission's declaration that biodiversity protection is not simply an option; rather it is a vital component of sustainable development.


It must, however, be recognised that the importance to regional economies, as described in point 2.2.3 of the Communication, and the attendant economic benefits, together with the resulting social benefits, are all too rarely appreciated or taken into account in the debate on nature conservation and Natura 2000.


Nature conservation (and therefore the designation of Natura 2000 sites) is often rather regarded — wrongly — as a cost factor, an imposition, a disadvantage or a threat; this is one major reason why these projects frequently give rise to opposition and why critical problems continue to arise with regard to the implementation of what is often exemplary nature conservation legislation.


The EESC paid considerable attention to this important fact in its abovementioned own-initiative opinion. It notes that very little has changed in this context over the last few years. The EESC calls upon the Commission, working together not just with the other EU Institutions but also with all other stakeholders at EU level and in the Member States, to launch a wide-ranging campaign to stimulate awareness in this field.


It is essential that to instil a real awareness of the fact that, as the Commission points out, ‘a Natura 2000 site can become a driver for sustainable development in the local economy and can contribute to sustaining the local rural communities. Active consideration of these issues in dialogue with all relevant stakeholders is the key to the successful establishment of the Natura 2000 network and its integration into the wider socio-economic sphere of an enlarging European Union’. In the EESC's view, the achievement of such an awareness is equally as important to the success of nature conservation in the EU as is the need to resolve the financial arrangements.


It has so far only been possible in a small number of isolated cases to bring about a general awareness not just of the economic benefits for regional development (tourism, the sale of regional products, etc.) of having a high level of biodiversity but of the general benefits of nature conservation areas in respect of, for example, climate protection (6) and protection against flooding. Studies, such as those mentioned in Annex I to the Commission document, have so far done little to change this situation, despite the fact that they clearly indicate that ‘the purely monetary benefits of conserving biological diversity significantly outweigh the costs’.


In this context, the EESC can only express its amazement at the fact that it appears to be easier to provide EU funding for dealing with the effects of natural disasters, which are partly due to over-exploitation of natural resources and landscapes — i.e. to a failure to implement nature conservation — than it is to secure funding for what is, in the final analysis, the cheaper alternative of taking steps to prevent such disasters.


The EESC draws attention to the fact that Article III-184 of the draft European Convention sets out the following principle: ‘The Union shall encourage cooperation between Member States in order to improve the effectiveness of systems for preventing and protecting against natural or man-made disasters within the Union’. Natura 2000 sites are, in many cases, in a position to assume such a role.


By way of example, whilst, following the devastating flooding disasters on the River Elbe in 2002, an EU Disaster Fund was soon established, it is, however, proving to be extremely difficult to implement and secure funding for integrated, ecological flood-protection measures covering rivers and meadows, which can demonstrably bring about a considerable reduction in peak high water levels downstream (7), thereby making it possible to avoid potential damage. A similar situation arises with regard to measures to prevent forest fires, particularly in the case of southern European states. Charges will have to be introduced. EU policy should be guided by the motto that ‘prevention is better than cure’. Nature conservation can make decisive contributions towards the achievement of this goal.


One of the reasons for this situation is undoubtedly the fact that, in many cases, it is private landowners and land-users who have to bear the brunt of the cost — both direct and indirect — of nature conservation measures, whereas the social benefits of such measures can virtually only be ‘entered into the accounts’ as ‘positive externalities’ (in contrast to ‘external costs’), which means that they do not figure in the calculation of, for example, GNP. The new financing arrangements must pay particular attention to this fact.

3.   Specific comments


The EESC welcomes the fact that, at the Commission, it is now no longer a question of whether it is to co-finance EU measures in respect of Natura 2000 sites; the ‘only’ question now being addressed is that of identifying the instruments to be used to this end.


The EESC understands the reasons for choosing the financing option in question, namely in order to develop and make appropriate use of existing aid instruments. It is essential for planning, administrative and financial arrangements in respect of the implementation of Natura 2000 to be carried out at the level where both the problems and the positive development potential exist, namely at local level in the Member States. Organising and making use of the existing Funds, such as the ERDF, the ESF, the Cohesion Fund, the EAGGF and the new European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), in a way which is more in tune with the needs of nature conservation will provide the responsible bodies in the Member States with scope for flexible action.


The Commission also rightly points out that this may well be the best way to ensure that ‘the management of Natura 2000 sites is part of the wider land-management policies of the EU’.


The EESC does, however, believe that it is important to underline the need for the Commission and the other responsible bodies to redouble their efforts with a view to ensuring that, in future, there are no more reoccurrences of the scenario whereby projects which have a detrimental effect on nature conservation benefit from co-financing by the EU, with the EU stepping in again at a later stage to pick up the bill for the resultant damage to nature and the environment.

The financial situation in the EU and the expected argument over funding


The discussion on the financing of Natura 2000 sites has to take place against the background of the expected wrangling over the size of the overall EU budget and the allocation of resources (8). There is no doubt that there will be a lively dispute over funding:

the financial perspective for the EU, submitted by the Commission, covering the period 2007 to 2013, foresees expenditure amounting to, on average, 1.14 % of Gross National Income, with the ceiling for ‘own resources’ being set at 1.24 %. The Member States which are ‘net contributors’ are currently insisting on an upper limit of 1 % which, were their demand to be accepted, would mean a cut in expenditure of some EUR 30 billion in 2013;

the enlargement of the EU is bound to lead to shifts in funding between the Member States and the regions, particularly in the field of structural aid. (9) Regions which up to now have received aid will, where appropriate after a transitional period, no longer be eligible for aid.


The discussion on the upper limit should be seen in the context of the fact that the amount to be set aside for nature conservation, estimated by the Commission at at least EUR 6.1 billion per annum, is in addition to the tasks to be carried out under the second pillar, even though, up to now, the requisite funding has not been provided under the financial perspective. There is likely to be a lively dispute over funding, both between regions and between the various policy areas. Such disputes are by no means new; in the past, however, nature conservation all too often had to bow to the needs of other policies.


Steps must therefore be taken to ensure that nature conservation, which is rightly seen as forming part of overall EU policy, is not subordinated to other tasks when funding is being provided by Member States; this would effectively doom nature conservation to failure. The EESC would once again reiterate the fact that nature conservation in Europe is not to be regarded as a luxury which we can ‘afford’ when the economic situation is favourable and which we can turn our back on when we are of the opinion that no funding is available. As the heads of state have often stressed, nature conservation is a task for society as a whole and a vital political requirement for which financing had to be found.


In order to adhere to the principle of making economical use of budgetary resources, there is a need to specify (a) which of the areas of responsibility under Natura 2000 identified by the Commission are to be regarded as absolutely vital and (b) which of these areas may be regarded virtually as ‘optional’. In respect of those responsibilities which are vitally important (e.g. compensatory payments or the provision of incentives to landowners or users of land), funding then clearly has to be earmarked. Should this fail to be the case, the EESC would be unable to support the principle of incorporating the financing of Natura 2000 into the existing funds, and would have to come out in favour of introducing separate financing arrangements, echoing the views of many of the stakeholders involved in the preliminary stages of the Natura 2000 programme.

Particular requirements of nature conservation in the EU


In Table 2 of the Annex to the Commission document (SEC(2004) 771), Natura 2000 sites are broken down by type of land-use, covering the following categories: pastures/heath-scrubs-grasslands, which account for 26.3 % of the area covered by Natura 2000 sites; forests (principally non-exploited forests or forests which are only exploited on an extensive basis), which represent as much as 28.9 % of the area concerned; inland waters-marshes-bogs, which make up almost 13 % of the area; and old orchards and the tremendously species-rich Spanish and Portuguese ‘Dehesas’ (covering an area of almost 800 000 ha), which account for approximately 2 % of the overall area. Only 5.6 % of the overall area is listed as ‘agricultural land’ (10).


In Part 3 of the Annex (SEC(2004) 771) the Commission describes in detail the actions needed for the implementation of the Natura 2000 network and makes a calculation of the costs involved (the current figure is EUR 6.1 billion). Broadly speaking, a distinction may be drawn in this context between administrative and planning costs, investment costs (e.g. respect of the purchase of land and also other forms of investment) and ongoing costs, including the cost of compensatory payments to landowners and maintenance costs.


In the EESC's view, it is absolutely essential to present more precise cost calculations as quickly as possible. It has doubts, for example, over whether the sums indicated in respect of the new Member States (EUR 0.3 billion, as opposed to EUR 5.8 billion for EU-15) will be sufficient. It is clear that some states (such as Poland) will certainly have to subsequently notify many more sites, thereby ultimately adding to the financial requirements.


In the EESC's view, the Commission rightly points out that nature conservation is frequently a matter of, as a general rule, ensuring the continuation of traditional management regimes, which are essential to the creation and maintenance of habitats. In many cases although the management regimes in question are now demonstrably no longer profitable for the operators concerned, it is, however, desirable on social and nature conservation grounds, for them to continue to be used. By way of example, there is virtually no other pattern of grazing which is more in line with the sustainability principle than the extensive system of grazing formerly used in the Spanish and Portugese ‘Dehesas’ which also involved driving livestock in the spring to the summer grazing areas in the mountains (‘transhumance’), along the migration routes (‘canadas’ meadows), which have developed over decades into valuable areas for nature.


After reading the Commission document, however, EESC members still find it unclear (a) whether co-financing by the EU is actually being demanded, as a matter of urgency, or planned in the case of all of the areas listed or (b) in which fields financial contributions are expected to be made solely by the Member States, in pursuance of the implementation of EU law. This matter requires further clarification.


In many cases conflicts arise as a result of the fact that previous users of the land in question have so far failed to receive adequate compensation or incentives; this is thus an area to which very special attention needs to be devoted. We cannot, on the one hand, speak of the social or even the overall economic value of nature conservation whilst, on the other hand, expecting land-users or landowners to bear the costs. Future financing arrangements must ensure that private landowners or land-users, at least, will be assured of receiving compensation or, better still an incentive, for carrying out measures which are in accordance with the goal of nature conservation. Living in or managing a Natura 2000 site should, in future, be regarded as a benefit, rather than as a drawback.


With a view to ensuring that this approach is adopted, there is a need to ascertain, in each individual case, the exact extent of the claim for compensation. Setting a blanket upper limit and deadlines for the submission of claims for compensation, as is the case at present would be detrimental to the whole approach.


If no separate budgetary heading is introduced, consideration should be given first and foremost, in the case of compensation payments, to drawing on the second pillar of the CAP, whereas, in the case of investments, use should rather be made of the standard Structural Funds. The EESC draws attention, with considerable concern, to the fact that new tasks or payments, under the second pillar (the future rural development pillar) in addition to the current payments, cannot be financed from this programme unless expenditure on other tasks is reduced or additional funding is provided.


To put it in a nutshell: if we wish to maintain the quality of rural development and also help to finance Natura 2000 via the second pillar of the CAP, additional funds clearly have to be earmarked. The EESC does, however, note that such an increase in funding is not provided for under the financial perspective presented by the Commission and there is a very grave danger that savings are to be made, particularly under the second pillar; furthermore, the figure for EU revenue proposed in the financial perspective is not accepted by the Member States which are net contributors. In the EESC's view, this set of circumstances not only constitutes a major weak point and presents considerable potential for conflict; it also jeopardises the full range of nature conservation efforts in the EU.


The EESC is therefore able to endorse the proposed arrangements only on condition that they are not implemented at the expense of other rural development measures. Should additional funding not be made available, neither the Commission nor the Member States will be able to fulfil their claim and their political promise both to promote rural development and implement Natura 2000. Politicians wishing to pursue this line in the EU should at least have the courage to tell the public openly that there is no longer a political will to assume certain tasks (e.g. nature conservation).


In the EESC's view this does not mean that there is no need to make economical use of resources also when addressing the issue of nature conservation. The primary objective of the EU's nature conservation provisions, and therefore of the Natura 2000 network itself, is to maintain bio diversity. This represents virtually a ‘mandatory programme’; in this context there is a need for EU participation, at least in those areas which are of European importance.


The natural corollary of this argument is, however, that not every local nature conservation measure represents a measure of European importance, which therefore deserves to be co-financed by the EU. The Member States, regions and local authorities must not be relieved of their clear political and financial obligation by citing the motto that: ‘No EU funding means no nature conservation’. The EU, for its part, must also not take the view that: ‘We make it possible to finance measures using the existing Funds. If the Member States fail to do this because they set themselves other priorities, then they themselves are to blame’.


On the other hand, whilst tapping the regional economic development potential of Natura 2000 sites, as referred to by the Commission, would be desirable (since it is becoming clear that nature conservation may also actually bring economic benefits), this aspect is, however, not necessarily relevant to the issue of species conservation.


In the EESC's view, this therefore implies that particular measures to be funded as part of the establishment of the Natura 2000 network are vitally important and that the requisite funding should therefore be clearly earmarked. The EESC asks the Member States and the Commission to formulate ideas with this aim in view.

Brussels, 10 February 2005.

The president

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Anne-Marie SIGMUND

(1)  Directive 92/43/EEC (OJ No. L 206 of 22.7.1992, page 7).

(2)  Overall costs, to be financed by the Member States and the EU.

(3)  See OJ C 221 of 7.8.2001, pages 96-102.

(4)  Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament entitled ‘2003 Environment Policy Review’, COM(2003) 745 final of 3.12.2003.

(5)  The three-year deadline (i.e. by 1995) referred to the notification of the sites concerned by the Member States. In some cases this notification has still not been finally concluded.

(6)  Moors and marshlands, for example, act as valuable ‘carbon sinks’.

(7)  These measures may also have a cross-border impact: the Netherlands is a clear beneficiary of such measures, which are often also of a high value in terms of nature conservation.

(8)  See the opinion of the EESC on the Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament – Building our common future: Policy challenges and budgetary means of the enlarged Union 2007-2013, COM(2004) 101 final – Opinion no. CESE 1204/2004 – which has not yet been published in the Official Journal.

(9)  Large parts of the funding for Natura 2000 would have to come from structural aid.

(10)  A further 13 % of the overall area is made up of marine areas and 4 % comprises coastal areas, in which the main costs involved are monitoring costs.