EU water law will NOT be changed, confirms European Commission

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23 Jun

In a landmark day for Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands, the European Commission has announced that the EU’s strong water legislation — the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) — will not be changed.

In a statement to POLITICO, the EU’s Commissioner for Environment, Ocean and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, confirmed the need to focus on supporting implementation and enforcement "without changing the directive".

The message from the Commission is clear: the WFD is an essential piece of EU environmental legislation and is here to stay in its current form.

The decision comes six months after the law was concluded to be “fit-for-purpose”, following a thorough two-year evaluation. Over the course of this process, more than 375,000 citizens demanded that the law be kept in its current form and better implemented by their governments.

The Commission’s decision is welcomed by WWF, EEB, the European Anglers Alliance, European Rivers Network and Wetlands International, who together form the Living Rivers Europe (LRE) coalition and led the #ProtectWater campaign to safeguard the WFD.

The European Anglers Alliance, together with its LRE partners, has been passionately campaigning for two years to ensure that the Water Framework Directive would not be revised, and that efforts should instead focus on the proper implementation of the rules.  As such, the EAA welcomes the statement made by the European Commissioner for Environment, Ocean and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, that the focus should be on enforcement of the Directive, without changing it. 

We applaud the Commission’s decision not to revise the Directive but to focus on the implementation of the legislation as it is. The Water Framework Directive came into effect in the year 2000. Since then member states have repeatedly delayed full implementation. Proper implementation of the Directive is crucial for the environment in the broadest sense, the life in and around the aquatic habitats, the biodiversity and the circular economy. Proper implementation of the Directive is needed to provide healthy fish stocks and to help migrating fish species, which today cannot reach their spawning grounds due to barriers in the rivers. Healthy and diverse fish stocks attracts anglers, who generate a significant economic input, not the least to the rural areas” said Mark Owen, European Anglers Alliance’s representative in the Living Rivers Europe coalition.

The WFD is one of the EU’s most ambitious and holistic pieces of environmental legislation, setting the target of having 100% of the EU's freshwater ecosystems in good health by 2027 at the very latest [1], up from just 40% currently [2]. The EU must meet this target in order to preserve its water resources and ensure Europe can adapt to climate change. But implementation from Member States has been weak and political will to make the law work in practice low. There has also been much pressure to weaken the legislation, including from industry lobby groups.

The full press release can be found here.

What we need now:

•The European Commission must now work with Member States and all relevant stakeholders to fast-track implementation and ensure that the WFD’s objectives are reached by 2027 at the very latest. Concretely, we will be looking out for the following implementation gaps to be tackled:

On dam removal:
•In the past, Member States’ River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) have missed the opportunity to improve river health by tackling hydromorphological pressures (changes to the physical shape and/or flow of a water body), including through dam removal. Dam removal has large economic benefits, in terms of job creation, and is cost-efficient when compared to the costs of maintaining obsolete dams, and increases resilience to extreme weather events.
•Whilst the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy includes the concrete commitment to restore 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers (including through dam removal), it is neither clear from this nor from the Recovery Package how the Commission will financially support this target. Dedicated funding is needed to turn this commitment into a reality, and the Natural Capital and Circular Economy Initiative proposed under the Recovery Package could be an opportunity for this. Freeing up money for this initiative is a win-win, helping meet the Biodiversity Strategy’s targets and the objectives of the WFD.

On drought:
•Drought management strategies need to be developed as part of Member States’ River Basin Management Plans and as a preventative response to climate change, rather than solely as an emergency response when droughts have already hit. Water management is not an isolated issue and must be tackled holistically, as required under the WFD.

On financing:
•The European Commission’s WFD implementation report and fitness check conclusions highlighted lack of funding as a significant obstacle to the law’s implementation. If Member States were to fully implement cost recovery under the WFD, they would not be depriving themselves from a source of revenue. Moreover, they would ensure that the costs of implementing the measures were not solely borne by consumers, while at the same time incentivising good practices.

On hydropower:
•The pressure of hydropower dams on Europe’s rivers is immense, with more than 20,000 existing plants and more than 8,000 additional ones on the cards. With the costs of solar and wind plummeting, the EU must invest in these renewable options rather than giving the green light to more hydropower plants, and invest in the refurbishment of existing hydropower plants.


[1] The original deadline for meeting this final objective was 2015, and was missed by a long shot. With 60% of EU waters still not healthy, the European Commission and Member States need to pull out all the stops to boost implementation and meet the final 2027 deadline.

[2] The latest data from the European Environment Agency shows that 60% of EU fresh waters are currently not healthy and fail to meet the WFD’s standards (EEA, European waters -- Assessment of status and pressures 2018). More on this topic:

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