France flouts EU law ahead of UN summit

  • Post last modified:May 29, 2024
  • Reading time:8 mins read

Once again, a country in the Global North is plundering the planet for capitalist profit and exacerbating the biodiversity crisis. Now, two environmental campaign groups have launched legal action against the government for flouting EU law. This time, it’s France, over its violation of the EU’s ocean protection policies.

Notably, the European nation is engaging in a staggering show of brazen hypocrisy as it gears up to host a key ocean summit.

Marine protected areas: France flouts EU law

In the Mediterranean, France currently allows highly destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling in its so-called ‘protected’ marine areas. This is despite a Europe-wide ban.

In 2006, the EU adopted the Mediterranean Regulation to protect key habitats and fish populations from overexploitation and harm. Specifically, this bans bottom trawling, pelagic trawling, purse seining and dredging in all marine protected areas (MPAs) hosting certain vulnerable habitats.

Those vulnerable habitats include seagrass meadows such as Posidonia meadows, coral reefs, and maerl beds. The latter are mats of red algae that serve as breeding grounds and nurseries for many marine species.

Given that marine ecosystems in the Mediterranean are in a catastrophic state, this regulation is of vital importance. Significantly, a 2020 study in the journal One Earth found that EU countries regulated 95% of MPAs no more than adjacent waters.

Contrary to EU law, France refuses to implement these bans and continues to authorise the most destructive practices. It has been doing so through various decrees and derogations within its so-called ‘protected’ marine areas.

Given this, campaign group BLOOM and ClientEarth have now launched legal action to take the French government to task on this.

Shocking hypocrisy

The legal action comes as France prepares to host the third United Nations Conference on the Oceans in June 2025. Ironically, France will hold this meeting in Nice on the shores of the Mediterranean.

The nonprofits are demanding that France revises three decrees which authorise bottom trawling in certain French MPAs where it should be banned. The pair have declared that they will not hesitate to take France to court should the administration fail to respond favourably to the request.

According to Nils Courcy, a legal expert at ClientEarth:

The simple fact that France is allowing trawlers to fish in protected areas that should be closed to trawling is a scandal. The European legal framework is not being respected. France’s interpretation of it is contrary to the letter and spirit of the law and tramples the major European environmental principles.

What’s more, France has been jeopardising ocean protection beyond its waters. In April, conservationists accused the French government of hypocrisy over its protest at a series of new MPA regulations announced by the UK.

Specifically, in January, the UK government declared a trawling ban in 13 MPAs in its territorial and economic waters. French diplomats, backed by the trawling lobby, have argued against the ban – particularly where it applies to the UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These are the stretches of ocean that generally extend 200 nautical miles (370km) from their coastlines. Fishers from France and other nations have had access to these areas.

France is currently spearheading efforts to force the UK to abandon its ban on trawling in these MPAs. Notably, it has gone so far as to form a coalition of eight European states to block the attempt by the UK to protect them. The coalition is attempting to do so via the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU.

MPAs: ‘so-called protected areas’

And while the UK government has announced this ban, ocean campaign groups have said even this move does not go far enough. Executive director of Oceana Hugo Tagholm said in January that:

the fact that this ban is only for reef and rock only in 13 MPAs still leaves vast swathes of our so-called ‘protected’ areas open to this extremely harmful practice.

Targeting reef and rock habitat alone doesn’t account for the habitats and wildlife beyond those boundaries and does not support the full recovery of marine ecosystems. Allowing destructive bottom-trawling to continue anywhere in any marine protected area is completely incompatible with allowing ocean life to recover and flourish.

Moreover, the designations are just the start. Notably, groups have documented destructive trawling vessels fishing in sites with protected status. For instance, Greenpeace previously exposed how supertrawlers – factory ships over 100 metres long – spent nearly 3,000 hours decimating MPAs throughout 2019.

On top of this, Oceana has since found that in 2023, vessels bottom-trawled in so-called MPAs for more than 33,000 hours.

In other words, pockets of ocean can hold protected designations, but without accompanying monitoring and enforcement, these sites remain vulnerable to illegal trawling activity. Environmental campaigners have long referred to these as ‘paper parks’ – in short, lines on a map that bare no resemblance to the reality of ocean protection.

Therefore, France and the coalition’s efforts to water down even this limited level of protection is alarming for upcoming negotiations. Courcy said:

With a year to go before the United Nations Conference on the Oceans, which France will be hosting in Nice, it is incumbent on France to be consistent and credible on this issue.

The ‘sham’ of France’s ocean protections

Given that France is not the only nation allowing bottom trawling in protected areas, a lawsuit could have far-reaching consequences for MPAs across the bloc. As such, a win would set a precedent for protected areas all over the EU.

BLOOM’s head of advocacy Swann Bommier said that:

France continues to flout the European regulatory framework with impunity, bowing to the demands of the industrial fishing lobbies. All the Mediterranean’s marine ecosystems are under threat as a result. At a time when the scientific community is sounding the alarm about the state of the oceans, and particularly the Mediterranean, it is urgent that Emmanuel Macron puts an end to the sham of ‘French-style’ protection and brings his actions in line with his rhetoric aimed at making France a ‘great ocean nation’.

By contrast, Greece is setting an example in terms of safeguarding MPAs. Based on scientific recommendations and the European framework, last April the Greek government announced a ban on bottom trawling in all its marine protected areas by 2030.

Feature image via Naval Architecture – YouTube

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