What difference will EU membership make to CITES?
It’s a landmark moment for the 40-year-old CITES, which had to be amended to allow the EU to sign up – becoming the first regional body to join the convention in the process.
But will make any real difference?
The EU is already a member of many other conventions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the EU’s member countries follow a common set of EU-wide regulations that implement CITES in all 28 countries. Once a crocodile skin, a mahogany log, or a container of sturgeon caviar enters one of these countries it can be moved about freely around the remaining 27, as long as the import was legal in the first place.
And EU member states have been working as a block in relation to many aspects of CITES for many years since keeping EU laws up to date with the convention’s regulations is an unending task.
All CITES members meet every 2-3 years and decide – by vote, if necessary – on changes to CITES rules, such as adding new species to the list of those protected, changing the level of protection applied, or changing the documentation requirements associated with trade in these species. Because these changes have to be followed up in EU law, the 28 members of the EU must agree a common line ahead of the wider CITES meeting, and then vote as a block.
I had direct experience of this myself when I worked for the European Commission and attended two such CITES meetings.
So what’s going to change now? Well, not a lot at first glance. EU membership will just make the procedures a lot easier for everyone concerned – particularly in terms of how EU members arrive at their common positions and how they vote at CITES meetings. The European Commission will have the mandate to speak on behalf of the 28 countries on most matters, and can simply enter 28 votes into the record instead of the 28 countries having to do so individually. In the rare cases, where EU countries have discretion to vote individually the procedures will allow for this.
And it must be said that the EU had largely been a positive influence in CITES. EU support was crucial in securing the addition of a suite of shark and ray species to CITES at the last meeting in 2013, and in putting the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade under the spotlight. Of course, they have had their bad days – such as the EU’s equivocation over the inclusion of Bluefin tuna in CITES at the previous meeting in 2010 that contributed to the failure of that important proposal.
There is one worry, though. In the past, scientists from individual EU countries, such as Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, who were funded by their respective governments, made huge contributions to the running of CITES by providing the necessary expertise to deal with complex technical issues. Now, with the EU battling economically, and with the European Commission playing a bigger role, these countries may feel that they can no longer afford this contribution to CITES. That would indeed be a pity.
But all that is in the future. And it will be a while before the full significance of the EU’s membership becomes clearer. Indeed, the first real test will not be until 2016 when the next big CITES meeting takes place in South Africa – and when controversial issues are bound to be up for debate. Watch this space.