The Sunday Express on 9 March published a front page article guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of the patriotic British gardener.
The headline said: “New EU rules would let inspectors dig up your garden…..in a bid to destroy some of Britain’s best-loved plants“. It went on “EU bureaucrats want new powers that would allow their inspectors to remove any plants on the Brussels hit list.”
This was then followed up by the Daily Telegraph on 10 March, with the headline “Gardeners with rhododendrons could be ‘criminalised’ by new EU law.”
There is, of course, no such thing as an ‘EU inspector’, so Sunday Express readers can relax: no euro-jobsworths in blue overalls with yellow twelve star logos will be arriving at dawn to dig up herbaceous borders or bundle rhodendron aficionados into vans.
The European Commission has proposed an EU Regulation on preventing and managing invasive alien species.
Far from being an attack on the UK’s dedicated gardeners, this will help protect them from aggressive plant and animal species that do massive damage to the environment and in some cases could ruin years of work they have put in to make their gardens beautiful.
The Regulation is not aimed at the kind of species that most people like to have in their gardens. The targets are things that spread rapidly across borders and over seas – which is why action at EU level is needed – and that do vast amounts of damage. Plants like giant hogweed and Japanese knotweed, which has damaged London’s Olympic stadium. The Regulation will also target animal species like the potentially lethal tiger mosquito and the coypu, which destroys riverbanks and crops.
But EU Regulations do not come into being just because the European Commission thinks they are a good idea. They need both an absolute majority of MEPs and a qualified (i.e large) majority of national Ministers in the Council.
If and when those two sets of elected representatives enact the Regulation, a list of species to be banned from the EU will be drawn up, meaning it will not be possible to import, buy, use, release or sell them.
That list will be compiled by the Commission and Member States – including the UK – working together, based on scientific evidence and on risk assessments performed by a committee of experts nominated by the Member States.
It will be for Member State authorities to enforce the rules – no EU inspectors.
Special measures will be taken to deal with any issues arising for traders, breeders or pet owners in a transitional period.
The Express and Telegraph are correct that the Commission had proposed that the list should, for practical reasons, be limited to the 50 species posing the biggest threat and that the Parliament and Member States have agreed to remove that maximum figure. But nothing will go on the list without rigorous scrutiny of the scientific evidence.
The British garden is safe.
There are currently over 12 000 species present in Europe which are alien to the natural environment. About 15% of these are invasive and they are rapidly growing in number. The proposal is designed to respond to increasing problems caused by these invasive alien species, which include:
An economic problem: invasive alien species cause damage worth at least EUR 12 billion every year in Europe, through hazards to human health, damage to infrastructure and yield losses in agriculture;
An ecological problem: invasive alien species can seriously damage ecosystems and cause extinctions of species which are needed to maintain the balance of our natural environment. Black cherry for example is seriously disturbing forest ecosystems and grey squirrels are outcompeting red squirrels. After habitat loss, invasive alien species are the second largest cause of biodiversity loss in the world;
A policy problem: many Member States are already having to spend considerable resources in dealing with this problem, but their efforts are not effective if they are dealt with purely on a national basis. The giant hogweed eradication campaign in Belgium, for example, will be undermined if the species reinvades from France.
The proposal is for three types of intervention:
Prevention: Member States will organise checks to prevent the intentional introduction of species of concern. However many species come into the EU unintentionally, as a contaminant in goods or trapped in containers. Member States will take action to spot such pathways and take corrective measures.
Early warning and rapid response: when Member States detect a species of Union concern that is becoming established, they will take immediate action to eradicate it.
Management of established invasive alien species of concern: if species of Union concern are already widely spread, Member States will put in place measures to minimise the harm they cause.