In a tersely worded reasoned opinion – the step prior to a court referral – the European Commission gave Romania just one month to start implementing EU laws to stop illegal logging and the continued destruction of Romania’s Natura 2000 sites. That was in July 2020. This bold stance has seemingly been followed by not much at all, a delay remarkable enough to warrant an MEP question, in March 2021, as to why progress in the infringement procedure was so limited. And still nothing.
Romania holds the largest share of primary and old-growth forests in the EU, outside of Scandinavia; according to the PRIMOFARO inventory (EuroNatur 2019), this potentially amounts to more than 500,000 hectares. Of this, more than 300,000 hectares (63 per cent) are located within Natura 2000 sites. Theoretically, these forests are “protected”. Reality looks very different.
To support the enforcement of existing EU nature protection laws in Romania’s forests, Romanian NGO Agent Green, ClientEarth and EuroNatur Foundation submitted a complaint to the European Commission in September 2019.
The Commission responded with a letter of formal notice to Romania in February 2020, urging Romania to properly implement the EU Timber Regulation and citing concerns surrounding violations of EU laws: the Habitats and Birds Directives, affecting Natura 2000 protected sites, and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive.
Conservationists from Agent Green confirm that logging permits in certain critical areas, such as the Natura 2000 site Fagaras Mountains, have increased dramatically since the start of the infringement. Romania contends that the accusations are exaggerated, the Romanian forestry sector is one of the best in Europe and that legal changes are underway.
Indeed, Romania drafted new (and in civil society‘s view, inadequate) rules requiring, among other things, environmental impact assessments in Natura 2000 areas. Rather than address the legislative gaps with law adopted in Parliament, however, the Romanian Government issued three ministerial orders – all fiercely challenged in court by the forest industry. Two have already been suspended; other suspension and cancellation hearings are set for February 2022. In the meantime, logging permits continue to be issued in Natura 2000 sites without prior impact assessment, 10-year forest management plans have not been reviewed, and forest and habitat destruction continue unabated – business as usual.
Without further action to enforce EU laws, Romania’s existing forest management plans and logging operations will continue unchecked, harming natural forest habitats and species in good conservation status.
Enforcement is long overdue. Beyond Romania, inaction would weaken the credibility of the European Green Deal, the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and Natura 2000. It would also make it harder for the EU to justify action in third countries such as is proposed in the EU Regulation on deforestation-free products that the European Parliament and Council are currently debating. Agent Green, ClientEarth and EuroNatur call on the Commission to refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU without delay. They ask the Romanian government to impose a moratorium on the logging of old-growth and primary forests (based on existing mapping, such as PRIMOFARO) in order to clarify the conservation status of forests and to protect intact forests, as the EU Biodiversity and Forest Strategy 2030 stipulates.