The Commission put forward a new Forest Strategy linked to the Fit for 55 package in July which was already watered down due to pressure from agricultural ministers. Now, several Member States are up in arms to further weaken a forest policy that can be one of the best allies we have in the battle against climate change, writes Laura Hildt.

Forests play a crucial role in bending the curve of biodiversity loss, bringing significant potential for climate mitigation and adaptation and for enhancing resilience against climate-induced extreme weather events. 

On a more direct and perhaps relatable level, for many of us forests are what we associate with nature, with taking a break, something we value and connect with, even without thinking about carbon storage, sequestration, water cycles, air purification and so on.

Already last year, Member States endorsed the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 with commitments to protect and restore forests. In July 2021, the Commission put forward a new Forest Strategy that picks up these voluntary commitments and adds, amongst other smaller initiatives, a planned proposal for a new legislative framework for the monitoring of forests. 

The outcome: Agriculture Ministers are up in arms. Up in arms about a Strategy that is overall rather timid, that was already watered down before its release due to pressure from agricultural ministers and the logging industry, and whose strongest element is the commitment for a new reporting obligation to better understand what is going on in Europe’s forests. Seems like some are truly not seeing the forest for the trees.

Our forests’ fragility

Let’s start with where we are at. From what we know, the EU’s forests are in a bad state. 

According to the data provided by Member States for reporting under the Habitats Directive, 15% of the forest habitats that are listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive (i.e. those forest where we have data about their condition) are in good condition, 80% are in unfavourable status, 5% are unknown, only 3.5% are improving. The biggest shares are the 39% that are stable in being in unfavourable status and the 28% where the condition is declining.

So, when Germany’s and Austria’s agricultural ministers start their joint letter by claiming that the EU’s forests are in a good state, that political decisions must be taken based on ‘this scientific consensus’ to then shift to whataboutism by pointing to the bad conditions of forests in other regions of the world (of course without reflecting on the links between deforestation and European consumption and production patterns) that looks very much like denial or outright misinformation.

Felling Sweden’s legacy

Take Sweden as an example. While many may think of Sweden as an eco-frontrunner, Swedish forestry has fundamentally transformed Sweden’s nature and has led to Sweden´s forest ecosystem now being in the final phase of a total ecological landscape transformation. With methods such as clear felling, soil preparation, fertilization and the choice of plant material, the Swedish forestry model has turned most of the forest into cultivations of spruce and pine that differ significantly from the variation and richness of natural forests. The intensive forestry has also had a significant negative impact on the Sámi as the conditions for reindeer husbandry have changed radically.

In a letter to EU policy makers earlier this year, Swedish youth, indigenous and forest protection groups summed it up well: “the ‘Swedish forestry model’ is wreaking havoc. The forest ecosystem has changed so dramatically that not even the reindeer that have learned to survive on these lands since the ice age can live in the landscape that this type of forestry creates.”

Chopping down EU forest policy

There are many things we do not know about the status of the EU’s Forests. 

The new Forest Strategy recognises this and thus commits to a new legislative proposal on EU Forest Observation, Reporting and Data Collection. A reasonable step no matter what you think about the status of the EU’s forests and also one key outcome of a new European Court of Auditor’s report on forests released this week.

Nevertheless, the same people who claim that everything is fine in the EU’s forests now oppose this proposed new instrument to better understand the situation in the EU’s forests. Usually, when one acknowledges that there might be a problem, gathering data to better understand the problem is usually a good idea. So when you claim everything is fine but don’t want to gather more data to prove this to the world, it very much looks like you actually know things are not so fine but want to hide something.

‘Competence’ and ‘subsidiarity’ are two other keywords that Member States keep coming back to in their stance on the Strategy. The background to this is that the EU as such can only take action where the Member States have granted it the power to do so, which is also called giving it the competence to do so. These powers are set out in the Treaties. Protecting the environment, taking climate action and agriculture are shared competences between the EU and Member States meaning that national governments can legislate to the extent that the EU has not already done so. 

Where this is the case, EU action has to respect the principle of subsidiarity, according to which EU level action is only appropriate where this is more effective. The third key principle is proportionality, meaning that the measures must not go beyond what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties.

Now, some Ministers are claiming that the EU would exceed its competence through a new legislative proposal on the monitoring of forests and that the Forest Strategy does not respect the principle of subsidiarity. However, there is not much to this claim as there is a long history of EU measures supporting certain forest-related activities in coordination with Member States. Art.191 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) provides clear competence for the EU to take environmental protection measures which also provides for competence when the proposed measures also touch upon forestry issues, as clarified by the Court of Justice of the EU in 1999

The Strategy further fully complies with the principle of subsidiarity as set out in Art.5(3) of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) as the environmental protection objectives cannot be sufficiently achieved at the Member State level alone given the necessary EU-level scale of the actions as well as the heightened effectiveness of addressing the monitoring and protection of forests at the EU level. 

Making Europe lush again

Not all is lost. Environment Ministers discussed the Forest Strategy this week and overall, most of them welcomed the Strategy with especially Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Belgium voicing their strong support. Austria and Malta particularly stressed the need for Environment Ministers to be closely involved in the debate on the Council Conclusions that are being drafted under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministers and are planned to be adopted mid-November. 

Especially for some Member States, it seems as if the different Ministries do not quite agree with each other, with the Austrian or Slovakian Environment Ministers speaking rather positively about the Strategy despite their agriculture counterparts having contributed to letters seeking to undermine the Strategy.

This suggests that there are still opportunities for Environment Ministers to push back against the negative stance of their agricultural colleagues and underline the importance of ensuring that Environment Minsters are fully involved in the debate.

Seeing the forest not just for the trees or rather for the wood, but for what it is, a holistic ecosystem that is part of a complex web that our lives, livelihoods, traditions, health and wellbeing depend upon, requires a focus on the protection and restoration of forests. The Forest Strategy is not perfect but an improvement and should thus be fully endorsed, with strong support for a new legislative monitoring framework, additional indicators for sustainable forest management, and the strict protection of remaining old-growth forests.

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