An advisor to the EU’s top court said on Tuesday that Poland broke European environmental laws by increasing logging in one of Europe’s ancient forests, marking the latest strain in Brussels-Warsaw relations.
The European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) top advocate issued a preliminary opinion on Tuesday that could bring the ECJ closer to ruling against Poland’s logging activities in the Bialowieza Forest.
Advocate General Yves Bot said the court “should rule that Poland has failed to fulfil its obligations” to protect the forest. Under the EU’s Natura 2000 and Habitat directives, EU countries must take appropriate conservation measures to protect special areas.
Bialowieza Forest covers 150,000 hectares in Poland and Belarus and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Described by UNESCO as an “irreplaceable area for biodiversity conservation,” the forest is home to hundreds of animal and plant species, including some of the continent’s oldest trees and the largest roaming population of European bison.
The conflict over Bialowieza is part of a wider rift between the European Commission and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, a nationalist party ruling the country since 2015.
In 2016, Poland’s former environment minister Jan Szyszko authorised a tripling of wood quotas in parts of Bialowieza, arguing that felling parts of the forest was necessary as part of forest management. Reasons the government cited include fighting a bark beetle infestation and making forest paths safe for hikers.
In July of last year, the ECJ ordered a halt to logging while it examined the Commission’s case, but Warsaw refused to comply. Four months later, the court threatened to fine Poland $100,000 for each day it continued felling trees for sale.
Laurent Pech, professor of European Law at Middlesex University London, called Poland’s move “a direct threat to the very functioning of the EU legal order,” noting it was the first time an EU member had publicly stated it would ignore an ECJ order.
Szyszko was replaced by Henryk Kowalczyk in January during a government shuffle intended to improve relations between Warsaw and Brussels. Following the reshuffle, Poland sought to ease tensions with the EU by declaring an end to logging in the Bialowieza forest.
However, official forestry data show that logging quotas to 2021 had already been reached by the time the decision was made. In fact, an expanded quota, declared illegal by the Commission, had been more than half fulfilled in one section of the woodland.
“The Polish government wants to sacrifice centuries-old trees for short-term gain,” Ska Keller, co-president of the European Parliament’s Greens/European Free Alliance group told AP. “We must protect Poland and Europe’s green lungs and support the many conservationists and scientists who have protested against deforestation in this unique World Heritage Site.”
Last year, environmentalists organised protests and brought the case before the court.
The ECJ is expected to make a final ruling in the next few months. Although judges are not required to follow the adviser’s recommendation, they often do so.
The European Commission said it would wait for the final ruling before making any further comments, but that it was “taking note” of the ECJ opinion on Bialowieza.