In a landmark day for Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands, the European Commission has announced that the EU’s strong water legislation — the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) — will not be changed.
In a statement to POLITICO, the EU’s Commissioner for Environment, Ocean and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, confirmed the need to focus on supporting implementation and enforcement "without changing the directive".
The message from the Commission is clear: the WFD is an essential piece of EU environmental legislation and is here to stay in its current form.
The decision comes six months after the law was concluded to be “fit-for-purpose”, following a thorough two-year evaluation. Over the course of this process, more than 375,000 citizens demanded that the law be kept in its current form and better implemented by their governments.
The Commission’s decision is welcomed by WWF, EEB, the European Anglers Alliance, European Rivers Network and Wetlands International, who together form the Living Rivers Europe coalition and led the #ProtectWater campaign to safeguard the WFD.
The WFD is one of the EU’s most ambitious and holistic pieces of environmental legislation, setting the target of having 100% of the EU's freshwater ecosystems in good health by 2027 at the very latest , up from just 40% currently . The EU must meet this target in order to preserve its water resources and ensure Europe can adapt to climate change. But implementation from Member States has been weak and political will to make the law work in practice low. There has also been much pressure to weaken the legislation, including from industry lobby groups.
Ester Asin, Director of WWF’s European Policy Office, said:
“Good legislation is not something to be tampered with. The EU needs the Water Framework Directive to safeguard its water supply, halt and reverse biodiversity loss and tackle climate change. We congratulate the Commission for standing by the strong evidence, taking the views of EU citizens on board, and following up on the ambitions of the European Green Deal and EU Biodiversity Strategy. But with 2027 right around the corner, better implementation needs to start right now. We look forward to working with the Commission on ensuring the law works not just on paper but in practice to bring life back to our rivers at last.”
With this announcement, it is clear that there can be no further delays from Member States. The European Commission must now work with all relevant stakeholders to fast-track implementation and ensure that the WFD’s objectives are reached by 2027 at the very latest. Member States will need to pull out all the stops in the next cycle of River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs).
Since the launch of the fitness check, the WFD has received public support from hundreds of thousands of EU citizens and scientists. The critical role of the WFD in halting the decline in freshwater biodiversity was highlighted in a letter from close to 6,000 scientists, which was sent to the Commission at the end of last year. The WFD also has the public support of a group of businesses, who have urged the Commission and EU Member States to preserve this groundbreaking law in its current form.
Sergiy Moroz, Policy Manager for Water and Biodiversity at the EEB, said:
"The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of healthy ecosystems as an insurance against pandemics, in addition to the countless other benefits that healthy, resilient water environments provide. By giving the EU's groundbreaking water legislation the final sign-off, the European Commission and Member States can now get on with the job at hand: Bringing our rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers to ecological health by 2027 at the latest. The gaps in the implementation of this law that the two-year evaluation highlighted will need to be addressed while putting in place the European Green Deal."
Steven Weiss, Associate Professor at the Institute of Zoology, Karl-Franzens University of Graz and signatory of the letter from scientists, said
“As one of nearly 6,000 scientists who signed a letter of support to the Water Framework Directive, I am delighted to see that the European Commission has taken on board the views of the scientific community. Freshwater species are currently the most vulnerable in Europe. Full implementation of the Water Framework Directive is vital in reversing this trend, and in protecting the diversity of life and processes that freshwater ecosystems support.”