State of the EU 2023 from a Protected Areas perspective

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The “2023 State of the European Union: ANSWERING THE CALL OF HISTORY”, Ursula von der Leyen’s speech analysed from a Protected Areas perspective.

On 13 September, in front of the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in Strasbourg, the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen presented the annual speech about the State of Union. This year it was especially important because the last one before the end of this Commission’s mandate. As we know, in June 2024 the European citizens will vote for the elections for the new European Parliament, and then a new Commission and a new President will be appointed.

Here EUROPARC underlines the aspects that refer to Protected Areas, analysing what Mrs von der Leyen said, and also what was missing in her speech, in order to offer more knowledge, and food for thought, about the Brussels’s current political debates directly connected to our work.

The speech, pronounced by Ursula von der Leyen, touched several points, among which the Ukraine war, digitalisation and artificial intelligence, immigration, economy, NextGenerationEU, future EU enlargement to the Balkans countries, and others.

The European Green Deal was of course one of the key themes.

Without any doubts, EUROPARC considers the launch of the Green Deal is the most important achievement of the current European Commission, and strongly appreciates that the President of the Commission stated: “We now have a European Green Deal as the centrepiece of our economy and unmatched in ambition”.

Presenting the results achieved and future actions about climate change and green transition, Mrs von der Leyen focused essentially on the industry sector, speaking about the EU’s support and related package of measures for energy transitions, competitiveness against not-European markets, job market and growth strategy, clean steel factories, investment in clean hydrogen.

Of course, without a strong acceptance of the green ambitions by the industrial sector, the Green Deal cannot reach its goals. But, speaking about industrial policies, Mrs von der Leyen says that “this is the strength of Europe’s response to climate change”. Inside of this crucial part of the discourse, EUROPARC, instead, would have much appreciated a strong declaration that climate change is not only a matter of industry but also strongly a matter of management of territories and landscapes focusing on protection and sustainable use of biodiversity and nature. The results of the two United Nations Conferences in 2022, on Climate Change (COP27) and on Biodiversity (COP15), clearly put in evidence.

Nevertheless, some of these considerations are mentioned later in the following part of the talk about nature protection that Mrs von der Leyen addressed to MEPs. Together with the cultural diversity, that makes the ”Europe of the Regions”, the President reminds us that Europe is a continent of unique biological diversity. She mentioned the Wadden Sea and the Baltic Sea, as well as the European Plain of moorland and wetland, as important allies against climate change and to secure regional water cycles, and unique for biodiversity. In EUROPARC’s eyes, this list of examples seems very limited but at least they refer to important ongoing discussions. For example, the Baltic Sea remains the most polluted sea in Europe and the European Commission is organising a high-level conference with the presence of the Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius (“Our Baltic Conference” in Palanga, Lithuania, on 29 September 2023).

Then, Mrs von der Leyen spoke about woodland: coniferous forests of the North and East forests, cork oak forests of southern Europe, and last remnants of virgin oak and beech forest in central Europe are “irreplaceable source of goods and services”.

EUROPARC could not agree more when Mrs von der Leyen concluded:

Biodiversity and ecosystem services are vital for all of us in Europe. Loss of nature destroys not only the foundations of our life, but also our feeling of what constitutes home. We must protect it.

Immediately after, the speech continues about food security and farming. “At the same time, food security, in harmony with nature, remains an essential task”. It is clear that this part of the discourse aims to reinsure farmers that their work is appreciated and that the Commission takes into account their concerns. Indeed the speech touches at this point on one of the most sensitive topics, especially in the recent and current debates about the nature restoration law and about large carnivores: the relation between agriculture and nature conservation. About this theme, Mrs von der Leyen underlined that: “For us in Europe, this task of agriculture – producing healthy food – is the foundation of our agricultural policy. And self-sufficiency in food is also important for us.” Reminding all about the consequences of Ukraine war, droughts, fires, and flooding, as well new obligations for farmers, the President admonishes that they “are all having a growing impact on farmers’ work and incomes. We must bear that in mind.”

Only after this premise, the speech mentions the efforts done by a part of the farming sector towards a more sustainable form of agriculture. About that: “We must work together with the men and women in farming to tackle these new challenges. That is the only way to secure the supply of food for the future.” Then, with a clear reference to the last hot debates inside the European Parliament and outside between farming and environmental sectors, Mrs von der Leyen made a strong invitation: “We need more dialogue and less polarisation”, and a proposal for the next future: “That is why we want to launch a strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture in the EU.” “Dialogue” is the crucial word that EUROPARC uses about the need to reinforce partnership between farmers and Protected Areas, so we are very willing to know more about how this proposal will be implemented.

The President concluded this part of the speech with a statement that EUROPARC shares totally: “I am and remain convinced that agriculture and protection of the natural world can go hand in hand. We need both.

What was missing in this speech?

According to EUROPARC, some very crucial topics. For instance: the Restoration Law. Probably it is too sensitive at this moment because the Commission, Parliament and Council are working in the “trialogue” to conclude the process. However, definitely, we regret the total lack of references to the importance of the law, and in general to the Biodiversity Strategy. The same for all other important Strategies (soil, forests) approved during this Commission’s mandate and ignored in the speech. Speaking about agriculture: no mention on pesticides, or other crucial and complex themes; and no mention of the large carnivores (about that the President launched recently a personal initiative about wolf that is considered quite divisive). Other big absent: marine (only rapidly mentioned with the two examples of nature diversity) and ocean conservation, and dialogue with fishermen (probably assimilated with farmers). Moreover, as said above, not enough strong message that nature protection should be a key part of Europe’s response to climate change. And last but not least for us, no mention of the role of Protected Areas and Natura2000 as key actors and key allies for the Green Deal.

EUROPARC has always been supportive of the European Commission in its efforts for the European Green Deal (see letter here) and we are ready and willing to continue in the future as it benefits our members (see webpage here). The European elections in 2024 will be crucial for the future of the Green Deal. We strongly hope that the new Parliament and the new Commission will continue, improve and reinforce the commitments towards more sustainability, more nature protection, and also more recognition of the role of key actors, such as the Protected Areas, to reach these objectives. That will be necessary if we really want to ANSWER THE CALL OF HISTORY.

The text of the speech is available here in all languages, and here in the original version.

The records of the speech, and the following interesting debate with the interventions of Members of the European Parliament from all political groups, are available here.