In a move that will further damage the already highly strained relationship between the Polish government and the European Union’s institutions, the European Court of Justice yesterday ordered that Poland immediately cease logging operations in the primeval Białowieża Forest, a protected Natura 2000 area and Poland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Białowieża Forest, which straddles the border between Poland and Belarus, is one of the last and largest remaining parts of the immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European Plain, some 10,000 years ago. Also home to ~800 European bison, the forest is characterised by large quantities of dead wood and ancient trees, some of which are centuries old.
In 2007 the European Commission designated Bialowieza Forest as a Natura 2000 site, part of the ecological network for the conservation of wild animals and plant species and natural habitats of “Community importance” within the European Union.
In 2016, in response to an outbreak of Spruce Bark Beetle, Poland authorised the three-fold increase in logging in the Forest District of Białowieża, as well as active forest
management operations in areas previously outside the scope of such activity.
The European Commission, fearing that such widespread logging activities were damaging the integrity of the Natura 2000 site, referred Poland to the European Court of Justice for failure to fulfil its obligations under the EU’s Habitats Directive and Birds Directive. In July of this year, the European Court ordered that Poland immediately cease large scale logging, pending a final hearing of the case before the Luxembourg based Court.
In the face of unabated logging operations, described by Poland as necessary forest management and spruce beetle eradication, the European Court of Justice reaffirmed its July 2017 decision adding that if its order is not complied with, Poland will be subject to daily fines of €100,000 per day until Poland complies with the Court’s order, or until final judgement in the case is delivered.
To that end, the Court also ordered Poland to send to the Commission, within 15 days, details of all measures that it has adopted in order to comply fully with the Court’s orders in the case, detailing (with justifications) the active forest management operations at issue that it intends to continue with only on the basis of public safety. If the Commission is of the view that Poland has failed to comply fully with the order, it will be able to request that proceedings before the ECJ be resumed.
The clash between the European Commission and the European Court of Justice and one hand and the nationalist, socially conservative Polish government, where the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is accused of undermining democratic standards, including weakening judicial independence. leads into wider concerns in Brussels about Poland’s commitment to the Copenhagen criteria of democracy and the rule of law. This has led for some to call for Poland’s voting rights in the European Council to be suspended.