IP/09/1793  Brussels, 20 November 2009

Environment: Commission takes Spain to court over nature conservation shortcomings, warns Cyprus and Bulgaria

The European Commission is taking Spain to Court for its failure to provide adequate protection for 174 Natura 2000 areas in the Canary Islands. Spain is now two years behind schedule in providing the necessary protection. Separate warning letters for other nature cases are being sent to Cyprus and Bulgaria. The Cyprus case, which was opened in 2007, concerns a failure to designate a sufficient number of protected areas for birds. The Commission is also concerned about environmental impact assessments made in the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria prior to the development of ski resorts there.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "Natura 2000, Europe's network of protected areas is the envy of the world – but adequate protection is vital, because its integrity must be protected. The Canary Islands are home to numerous species found nowhere else in the world, and these must be preserved, so I call on Spain to take the necessary measures to protect these areas as soon as possible."

Nature protection failings in the Canary Islands

The Commission has decided to take Spain to Court for its ongoing failure to provide 174 Natura 2000 sites in the Canary Islands with an adequate level of legal protection. Spain had until December 2007 to adopt the required conservation measures, but almost two years after the deadline the situation is still not resolved.

The Macaronesian islands (such as the Canary Islands) were never part of a continent, so the native plants and animals reached the islands via long-distance dispersal. The islands contain unique ecosystems particular to these volcanic regions, and many of them – including coastal lagoons and laurel forests – are under threat. Despite representing only 0.3% of the EU territory, the region hosts almost 20% of its most important habitat types and 28% of its protected plants, many of them endemic to the islands.

Bird protection in Cyprus

In June 2007, Cyprus received a first written warning from the Commission over its failure to designate a sufficient number of areas for protection of wild birds. The Commission noted major shortcomings in nine out of sixteen areas considered important for birds, and while there has been some progress, a number of serious gaps remain. A final written warning points out in particular that three of the 9 areas of concern (the Paralimni Lake, the Oroklini Lake and the Akamas peninsula) still lack any designation, and that six other areas are still much smaller than the requirements of the legislation.

Cyprus will now be required to provide scientific justifications to explain the discrepancies, and has two months to reply.

Rila Mountains in Bulgaria

The Commission is sending a first written warning to Bulgaria about the development of ski infrastructure in the Rila Mountains and the potential impact on the sites designated as part of the Natura 2000 network there. The Commission is concerned that some of the developments in question were authorized by the national authorities before any proper assessment of their impact and cumulative effects on protected species and habitats had been carried out. A similar problem was previously identified in the Pirin Mountains. In both cases the Commission aims to fully assess the situation and to ensure that the sites are properly protected.


Special protection areas and special areas of conservation

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 suitable sites as Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for the conservation of wild birds. The designation of SPAs must be based on objective, verifiable scientific criteria.

Under the Habitats Directive, Member States draw up a list of Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) on their territory that can make a significant contribution to preserving Europe's most valuable habitat types and habitats of species. Member States then have six years to bring in domestic legislation turning the SCIs into adequately protected and managed Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). Taken 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

Article 226 of the Treaty gives the Commission powers to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations.

If the Commission considers that there may be an infringement of EU law that warrants the opening of an infringement procedure, it addresses a "Letter of Formal Notice" (first written warning) to the Member State concerned, requesting it to submit its observations within a specified period, usually within two months.

In the light of the reply or absence of a reply from the Member State concerned, the Commission may decide to address a "Reasoned Opinion" (final written warning) to the Member State. This clearly and definitively sets out the reasons why it considers there to have been an infringement of EU law and calls upon the Member State to comply within a specified period, normally two months.

If the Member State fails to comply with the Reasoned Opinion, the Commission may decide to bring the case before the European Court of Justice. Where the Court of Justice finds that the Treaty has been infringed, the offending Member State is required to take the measures necessary to conform.

Article 228 of the Treaty gives the Commission power to act against a Member State that does not comply with a previous judgement of the European Court of Justice. The article also allows the Commission to ask the Court to impose a financial penalty on the Member State concerned.

For current statistics on infringements in general see: