Fifteen judges from the EU’s highest court have today heard arguments from Poland’s Environment Minister and the European Commission about illegal logging in Białowieża Forest.
Known as the Grand Chamber, the EU’s judges will rule on whether to uphold the temporary ban on logging in this unique forest – a UNESCO World Heritage site – and impose financial fines on the Polish side for non-compliance with the ban.
ClientEarth lawyer Agata Szafraniuk said: “This is first time in history that the European Court will rule on how to react to an EU country breaching interim measures, which shows it is treating this case with exceptional care.”
During the hearing, Poland’s environment minister suggested the European Commission’s evidence had been manipulated in a cyber attack, saying “one cannot spread lies like the Commission has. It has manipulated the facts and its data is not reliable”.
Szafraniuk added: “The Minister Jan Szyszko requested this extra hearing, claiming that the vice-president of the Court of Justice who presided over the last hearing, was biased. The fifteen judges of the Grand Chamber, including the president and vice-president, will present their stance and the final judgment will be based on the view of the majority. Hopefully this will reassure Minister Szyszko.
“Minister Szyszko has changed his justification for logging Bialowieza and suggested to EU judges that the Commission’s photos showing the extent of the illegal logging have been manipulated.
“The minister must stop making excuses and blaming fake news when he’s engaging in it… and start complying with the Court of Justice of the EU, which ordered logging to stop immediately.
“The situation on the ground is, from a legal standpoint, very clear – the logging blatantly breaches EU nature laws.”
Intense logging in Białowieża Forest, despite the protests of scientists and the public, continues. That is why, on 27 July 2017, the Court of Justice decided to apply interim measures, immediately banning logging in the majority of Bialowieza.
Szyszko ignored the interim measures and as a result, during the first hearing in September, the European Commission called for fines for the Polish government. The Commission has never before applied for financial penalties this early in the procedure.
The case was originally triggered by the Environment Minister’s decision for a threefold increase of logging in Białowieża Forest from March 2016, without assessment of the impact this would have on the unique nature of the forest. This assessment is required by EU law.
After several calls to reverse this decision were unsuccessful, ClientEarth, together with six other organisations, complained to the European Commission. The Commission opened legal proceedings shortly after, and has fast-tracked the case at every stage. Today, the Commission’s lawyer accused Poland of changing the justification for logging – from bark beetle to public safety – in an attempt to avoid the court order.
Szafraniuk added: “The Court is expected to issue the final decision regarding interim measures and financial fines before the end of October. We also expect the next hearing, this time in the main case, to happen this year.”