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EU takes legal action against Polish government for breaking nature laws

The European Commission has launched legal proceedings against the Polish government for breaking nature protection laws in its management of forests.

The Commission is urging Polish decision-makers to ensure proper safeguards are in place for protected forests, as recent changes to Polish laws have set off alarm bells for nature protection, alongside longstanding concerns about access to justice.

Under the Birds and Habitats Directives, certain activities that would disturb or harm protected species can only proceed in very limited situations.

But changes to Polish law, mainly drawn up by industry, have allowed forest work to be carried out, even if it destroys vulnerable plants and habitats.

ClientEarth lawyer Agata Szafraniuk said: “Once again, the Polish government is in the firing line for its poor management of forests. If the government wants to avoid more legal action, safeguards must be put in place to protect forests and natural habitats that are home to vulnerable species.”

The Commission has also criticised the Polish government for not ensuring the public has access to justice over forest management plans.

Under Polish law, forest plans are considered ‘internal acts’ which means people and non-governmental organisations cannot challenge them in court. Not only does this go against EU nature protection laws, it also breaks the Aarhus Convention – a UN treaty designed to ensure access to justice for environmental cases.

In 2016, the Polish government approved a threefold increase of logging in Europe’s last primeval forest, Białowieża. With no legal standing to bring its own case, ClientEarth submitted a complaint to the Commission, which opened its own infringement case and fast-tracked it at every stage.

In April 2018, the EU Court of Justice ruled the logging violates EU law and ordered the Polish government to reverse its decision immediately.

Szafraniuk added: “Having no access to justice means people can’t use the courts to defend the environment. This does not just affect forest management plans in Poland, but countless other environmental decisions across Europe.

“With this new threat of legal action, the Commission is sending a clear message to the Polish government that EU nature laws cannot be ignored.”

Poland now has two months to respond to the Commission. It faces the prospect of further legal action if it fails to respond or if its response is not deemed satisfactory by the Commission.

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Dawid Zawiła

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