This is what the Baltic Sea can expect from the new Commission

Text: Hanna Sjölund

On Monday, the European Commission with its newly confirmed commissioners took office. 

Being a Green Party member from Lithuania, the Commissioner of Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginjus Sinkevičius, hopefully has a good understanding of Baltic Sea issues.

Appearing before the European Parliament’s fisheries and environment committees in October, Commissioner Sinkevičius outlined his priorities for the coming five years. 

Several of the following strategies and legal files may have quite some impact on environmental and fisheries management in the Baltic Sea. Here is what he is expected to advance during Sinkevičius’ term in this area:

• European Green Deal

The next big thing in environmental policy. The goal is to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent with the proposal having been promised within 100 days of the Commission taking office (although talk of the town now says already on 11 December and in true Brussels character a draft has already been leaked).

The deal does however not limit itself to only climate as Commission President von der Leyen stated that climate change, biodiversity, food security, deforestation and land degradation go together. Marine issues, are at least in the leaked draft, not specifically addressed as opposed to forests. But within the Green Deal Commissioner Sinkevičius is to lead on biodiversity, the circular economy and zero pollution and commented the Deal by saying that he “will, under my mandate, develop an initiative for clean, healthy and of course sustainably managed seas and oceans”. 

With its broad coverage, several legislative files will be put under this umbrella. For instance, the 8th Environmental Action Programme will further outline the objectives defined in the context of the Green Deal.

• Farm to fork

The Farm to Fork strategy is foreseen to stretch across the whole food supply chain and include emission reduction targets as well as cuts in pesticide use. Here it is the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Janusz Wojciechowski, who has the lead. 

From a marine perspective, Commissioner Sinkevičius commented the strategy by saying that he “would like us to draw on the potential of sustainable seafood to contribute to a Farm to Fork strategy on sustainable food. […] so that we know and we can trace fish from the net to the can.” 

With the potential of aquaculture being restrained by factors such as the brackish water of the Baltic Sea, it will be important to ensure that the strategy takes regional dimensions into account.

• Implementation and Evaluation of the Common Fisheries Policy

Commissioner Sinkevičius retains Commissioner Vella’s combination of fisheries, marine and environmental responsibilities. Hopefully, he can take the integration of fisheries and environmental policy further in practice. Fisheries-related indicators are a particularly weak aspect of the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, which was to deliver Good Environmental Status to our marine environments by 2020. 

Under the CFP, fish stocks should be fished sustainably by 2020, which, e.g. based on past years’ quota setting, will not be reached. Sinkevičius commented this by stating that “in principle, 2020 is the first year when stocks have to be managed in line with the maximum sustainable yield target”. He also stated that during his term, “prosperous and sustainable fishing – full implementation of the CFP will be a top priority with full evaluation by 2022”.

The question is if Commissioner Sinkevičius will be more successful than his predecessors in pulling this through and ensure that an eco-system approach, e.g. taking the interaction between different fish stocks into account, may actually come into play.

• Biodiversity Strategy for 2030

Commissioner Vella has expressed regret over the fact that the EU has not come farther in reaching global biodiversity targets. With 2020 being the milestone year for agreeing on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP15 in China next year, Sinkevičius will “first work towards a biodiversity equivalent of the Paris climate 1.5°C goal – and rally the world behind it”. Part of this is leading the work on a Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, where he wants to see an increase of marine protected areas from 10% to 30% with better connectivity and management that is more effective.

The quality of protection in many of the already existing areas has in recent studies been questioned so the effectiveness of management is of utmost importance to ensure that the protection on paper actually has a positive effect in practice on the habitats it aims to protect.

• Zero pollution ambition

Another overarching umbrella encompasses several legislative files and strategies on e.g. chemicals, air quality and nutrient run-off. In the area of water, Commissioner Sinkevičius stated that “we need to focus on new or particularly harmful sources of pollution, such as nutrients, microplastics and pharmaceuticals”. With water legislation going through a complete overview at the moment, elements such as the strategic approach to pharmaceuticals in the environment might be included in e.g. a revised Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (UWWTD). For nutrient pollution, the ongoing review of the Common Agriculture Policy, CAP, will be critical for the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. 

The strategy for a non-toxic environment is long overdue and there has been rumours that the Commission might scrap it since several initiatives have meanwhile moved on along, such as the fitness check of chemicals legislation except REACH. However, Commissioner Sinkevičius stated that he “look[s] forward actually to including REACH as one of the key pillars of the non-toxic strategy. On the basis of what we have in REACH in terms of data, we can build a very strong non-toxic environment strategy, especially with regard to chemicals, and then even go beyond, for example to endocrine disruptors”. 

Additionally, a ban on intentionally added microplastics is due to be presented by the Commission but Commissioner Sinkevičius also stated that “the next step has to be microplastics in textiles, tyres and pellets, that’s where the main source is”.

For a semi-enclosed shallow sea like the Baltic Sea with its slow water exchange, both nutrient and chemical pollution are important factors. In this context, a revised, strengthened UWWTD may play a significant role. Further, with the REACH registration completed, it is high time for the non-toxic strategy to ensure a true move from a reactive to a proactive chemical approach. 

High expectations

With his encouraging words, the expectations on Commissioner Sinkevičius are high. But Commission legislative proposals are only the first step. For them to actually bring improvements for environmental and fisheries management of the Baltic Sea, the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers, who need to agree on the final texts, will need to step up their game too. 

The expectations also remain high for national implementation of legislation already in place. For instance, so far only 16% of the measures under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive have been implemented at member state level, which does not bode well for attaining Good Environmental Status by 2020.

This article was updated on 3 December 2019.

Hanna Sjölund

Hanna Sjölund

Advocacy and Analysis Officer