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Will Europe At Last Unite To Combat Thousands Of Flatworms?

April 3, 2009

Europe’s borders have been breached by thousands of plants and animal species from other parts of the world: from the American mink to the New Zealand flatworm. The invaders feed on, hybridise with, parasitise and out-compete native species. They also introduce diseases, alter the balance within ecosystems, modify landscapes and impact upon agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Preliminary estimates indicate that the monetary cost of these invasive alien species in Europe amounts to at least &eur;10 billion per year, yet for 90% of species almost nothing is known of their impacts.

Recent evidence that Europe may be home to 11,000 alien species has spurred the European Commission to release its first ever Communication on invasive species. The European Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, noted at the launch of the Communication that “the ecological, economic and social consequences of the spread of invasive species for EU countries are serious and need a harmonised response”.

The Communication, which is currently open for consultation, proposes the development of a European Strategy on Invasive Species. It outlines three potential ways forward, each representing a different level of legislative cost and complexity. The first, and least complex, involves making better use of existing legislation; the second would adapt existing legislation to address invasive species, while the third, and most complex, would develop a dedicated legal instrument. But is this the best way forward?

A recent paper published in the journal Science1 suggests legislation is only part of the answer and that what Europe lacks is appropriate governance and institutional coordination across Member States to tackle the problem of invasions effectively.

“Currently, responsibility for invasive species management sits within too many different European Institutions. These are organisations such as the European Environment Agency (EEA), European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisation (EPPO), European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that rarely communicate with each other and where the topic of invasions is only one of many areas of activity” says Philip Hulme lead author of the paper.

“This system is not effective. For example EPPO and EFSA have not seen eye to eye when it comes to assessing the risks to Europe of different alien species, while funding for research and management is often prioritised separately by the different Directorates-General in Brussels. The political, cultural and geographic complexity of Europe makes a single coordinating body a necessity”

The authors of the paper, who recently edited the Handbook of Alien Species in Europe2, recommend the European Parliament and Council give serious consideration to the establishment of a single body to bring together invasive species related resources and activities currently dispersed amongst the various European institutions. This body, which they call the European Centre for Invasive Species Management (ECISM), would have a mission to identify, assess and communicate current and emerging threats to the economy and environment posed by invasive species. ECISM would coordinate activities across Member States, building a Europe-wide surveillance system which could monitor emerging threats, support rapid response and raise public awareness around the issues of invasive species.

The idea is sound, but such a Centre would face considerable challenges. For example, the major policy driver of a single EU market for goods and people favours the spread of invasive species, the number of alien species introductions continues to increase year on year, and public awareness of the impact of those species is little more than 2%.

Unfortunately, these factors make the formation of such a body all the more challenging and only time will tell if Europe is able to meet that challenge.

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