EU court adviser backs Commission in forest dispute with Poland

BRUSSELS/WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s decision to increase logging in a primeval forest breaks EU law, an adviser to the EU’s top court said on Tuesday, backing the European Commission against the government in one of several disputes straining ties between Warsaw and Brussels.

Logged stub and trees are seen at one of the last primeval forests in Europe, Bialowieza forest, near Bialowieza village, Poland February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

The standoff over Bialowieza, one of Europe’s last primeval forests, is part of a greater clash between the EU executive and the EU’s biggest eastern member, whose ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is accused of undermining democracy.

The UNESCO World Heritage site straddling the border with Belarus is home to Europe’s largest herd of European bison as well as unique birds and insects.

Under the EU’s Habitat Directive, EU countries have to take appropriate conservation measures for special areas.

In March 2016, a few months after parliamentary election won by PiS, Jan Szyszko, the environment minister at that time, approved a tripling of the quota of wood that can be harvested in one of three administrative areas of the Bialowieza Forest.

The Polish government has said cutting down trees there was necessary to make forest paths safe for hikers and protect existing trees from a bark beetle infestation.

“Those decisions are necessarily liable to result in a deterioration of the breeding sites of the protected species,” the court’s advocate general Yves Bot said.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) will make a final ruling in the coming months and, while judges are not obliged to follow the adviser’s recommendation, they do so in most cases.

The European Commission said on Tuesday it was “taking note” of the ECJ opinion on Bialowieza but would wait for the final ruling before making any further comments.

A spokesman for the executive also said the Commission was still analyzing whether Poland was or was not violating the court’s interim injunction issued last year, which ordered Poland to stop logging immediately.


Poland’s Environment Minister Henryk Kowalczyk, who replaced Szyszko in January, said in a statement following the adviser’s opinion that Poland would analyze it in detail and repeated that Warsaw would comply with the court’s final judgment on the forest, which he expects most likely in April.

On Wednesday Kowalczyk will likely meet commissioner Karmenu Vela, responsible for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries, the executive spokesman also said.

“We hope that minister Kowalczyk ... will put an end to the destructive policy of his predecessor and grant the whole of Bialowieza Forest national park status,” said Agata Szafraniuk, a lawyer at ClientEarth, an environmentalist group.

Most of the area of the forest in Poland is managed by three local units supervised by State Forests, the state-run body in charge of harvesting timber and protecting woodland.

About one sixth of the area is a national park, which protects the best preserved fragment of Białowieza Forest.

As an interim measure, the ECJ said last year Poland would be fined 100,000 euros ($123,610) per day if it did not stop large-scale logging in the forest.

Logging quotas to 2021 have already been reached and in one part of the forest an expanded quota, declared illegal by the European Commission, has been more than half filled despite an injunction, official forestry data shows.

“In 2017 a total of almost 190,000 cubic meters of wood was logged in Bialowieza Forest, which is four times an average annual harvesting. The last time when such huge annual logging was reported was 30 years ago, in the communist era,” said a local activist group Camp for the Forest.

“We have a bitter satisfaction following today’s opinion,” said Robert Cyglicki from Greenpeace. Nothing would change the fact that an area of about 19 sq km (7.3 sq miles) of Bialowieza had been “devastated”, he added.

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in BRUSSELS; editing by Philip Blenkinsop, William Maclean