Prospects for achieving good environmental status of Europe's seas to be undermined by new appointment and brief?

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The new president of the European Union recently appointed a whole new team of commissioners, including the appointment of the Maltese politician, Karmenu Vella, as the new EU Commissioner for the Environment and Maritime and Fisheries posts (see Joan Edward's blog on this), but is the environment already sinking down his agenda?

This is an unprecedentedly broad brief, the environment and maritime/fisheries roles previously being split between two commissioners (in DG Environment and DG MARE respectively). This is an extremely worrying development that could reinforce the focus on economic growth at the expense of the health of ecological systems that underpin such growth and the health of humans. One also wonders whether it is wise to appoint a civil engineer from Malta, given this country's appalling track record in implementing the Habitats and Birds Directives. Then again, if you want to unjustly promote short-term economic growth at the expense of long-term ecosystem health and human well being, maybe this could be viewed as just the right appointment.

Such concerns are exacerbated by the fact that the new commissioner must report directly to and liaise closely with the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. Such concerns are also reinforced by the letter announcing this appointment, which states that a priority for the new Commissioner will be an overhaul of the Habitats and Birds Directives to ensure they are modern and 'fit for purpose'. It also assumes that this legal framework for conservation is 'complete and mature' when the lists of designated sites are still being completed and there is an urgent need to improve the protection afforded to these designations. As I have pointed out in a previous blog on increasing tensions between good environmental status and blue growth in Europe's seas, the European Environment Agency reports that "Whether looking at species (fish, mammals, birds, invertebrates or reptiles) or marine habitats (water column, seabed), less than 20 % (often much lower) of all biodiversity features (i.e. species, habitats and ecosystems) are considered as being in Good Environmental Status. This pattern is consistent throughout all the marine regions."

Given these concerns and figures, one might expect the new Commissioner to have the achievement of GES highlighted as a priority, but the letter appointing him does not even mention GES, though it does tellingly highlight that "the Blue Growth approach in the field of maritime affairs and fisheries should be further developed by mobilising emerging and innovative industries". It would seem that the prospects for blue growth and the related implementation of the Maritime Spatial Planning Directive (see previous 'agenda for blue growth' blog on this) are going to be very high on the new commissioner's agenda, whilst the prospects for achieving the good environmental status of Europe's seas under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive are sinking down this agenda.

Achieving effective marine conservation measures is very strongly influenced by politics, some would go so far as to even argue it largely comes down to politics. Accepting the importance of politics in marine conservation, this recent appointment really does not bode well for the prospects for achieving good environmental status of Europe's seas. Vive blue growth?

This viewpoint draws on the findings of the governance analyses of MSP case studies and related issues undertaken as part of the EC funded MESMA project (though these views are entirely my own); a summary of the main findings and related outputs of this MSP governance research can be found here and an Open Channels Live Chat on the findings can be found here. See, in particular, a recent open access paper which summarises and critically reviews the emerging policy landscape for marine spatial planning in Europe.