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Huge pushback mounting against new EU forest policy

The new 2030 Forest Strategy is triggering diplomatic clashes in the EU over who should be responsible for forest policy, as EU auditors voice concern on biodiversity loss. Europe’s biggest timber nations lined up at an Austrian conference this week to reject a climate strategy proposed in Brussels to sustainably regulate how woodlands are managed. Sources: Bloomberg, euobserver

Resistance against legally binding EU proposals appears to be mounting. Forestry ministers from Germany, France, Finland, Slovakia and Sweden, as well as industry representatives declared after meeting in Vienna that the European Commission should steer clear of any rules that restrict national control over the continent’s 640 billion euro (US$742 billion) timber business.

“Forest policy rests in the hands of EU member states and that’s how it should stay in the future,” said Austria’s Agriculture Minister Elisabeth Koestinger, who hosted the meeting, at a press briefing.

The group sent a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlining their red lines. The European Commission’s draft forest strategy in July laid the groundwork for a new suite of high-tech surveillance measures and rules to protect European forests “under increasing strain,” while streamlining governance across all 27 member states.

The EU’s executive arm wants to expand woodlands by planting an additional 3 billion trees, even as it encourages more timber use to replace carbon-intensive concrete in construction.

But ministers who convened in Vienna said the commission plan risks undercutting employment and depriving its economy of resources.

Monitoring of forest inventories should remain the province of national governments, according to Koestinger.

“Only a variety of regional concepts can do justice to the diversity of European forests,” said Felix Montecuccoli, an Austrian timber-industry lobbyist, in a statement.

“This requires independent, national and regional forest policies.”

European Commission proposed a new law in July on common forest-data collection and on national and regional forestry strategy plans. But Sweden, one of Europe’s most heavily forested countries, fully disagreed with “the need” for such strategic plans “on the EU level”, which it saw as an attempt at “increased centralisation” by EU institutions, according to an internal EU paper dated 27 September.

“Forestry will not be subject to exhaustive rules from Brussels,” Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven said in Sweden’s parliament last month.

Austria said that the proposed EU strategic plans “ignore well-established national systems and tools… which leads to an increase in cumbersome and ineffective regulation,” according to the internal EU documents.

But dissatisfaction has been more widespread than that. Overall, 11 member states have voiced reluctance on the EU’s new forestry approach.

In July, Austria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden said in a joint letter that common obligations under a potential EU planning and monitoring law would bring an “unprecedented administrative burden” to member states and operators.

Meanwhile, a new report by the European Court of Auditors, an EU watchdog, said on Monday 4 October that the EU’s previous (2014-2020) forestry strategy and related policies had “limited impact” on protecting biodiversity and addressing climate change.

Data from recent years showed that the state of EU forests was deteriorating, even though the EU was increasingly referring to them as a ‘carbon sink’ in climate-change policy.

The auditors’ report identified weaknesses in enforcement of an EU regulation against illegal logging, both at national and EU level.

It warned that the number of checks made by national authorities was low compared with the number of firms in the EU market.

A 2020 EU commission report revealed that checks were made on just 0.43% of operators during the two-year reporting period.

The Court of Auditors also slammed the commission for not analysing the quality of member states’ checks based on different definitions of what ‘illegal logging’ was. And auditors suggested that the general use of remote sensing or acquisition of information, typically based on aerial photography and satellite data, could offer “great potential for cost-effective monitoring over large areas,” and help tackle the marketing of illegally harvested timber and timber products in the EU.