Forestry: Fear of Harmonisation or North-South divide?

Monday 13 November 2017

Forests cover more than 40% of the territory of the European Union, and are its third largest job provider, not to mention the enormous importance of wood in daily life. However, there is no “Common Forest Policy” nor “Forestry Fund”. There are differences in forest perception and use between Member States and examining European institutions’ policies on forests and their reception among stakeholders reveals the need for a regional cooperation rather than a European one.

The European forestry sector (logging and wood processing) is the third largest employer of the Union after the metal and food sectors. However, differences between Member States regarding the importance of this sector are stark, and one could trace an imaginary line between States with an industrial forest use (Sweden, Finland, Estonia) and countries with a rather “conservative” approach to forestry, where forests are kept as such and mainly used for recreational activities (Greece, Italy and Spain as the main examples). Perceptions of their forests by Europeans have been shown to reflect these trends[1]. This state is echoed in the action of the European Union: Forest products are a Member States competence. This did not prevent the European Union from undertaking both indirect (for example via the Agriculture and Rural Development Fund and the renewable energy sector) and direct actions via the New EU Forest Strategy of 2013[2] and the Natura2000 network[3].

However, this collection of various plans, policies and actions made the European policy on forests fragmented and lacking coherence, notably on the question of the trade-off between industrial timber production and biodiversity and community service production (carbon capture, recreation, soil stabilisation). While the European Parliament stresses the need for the preservation of biodiversity and the use of forests for their additional benefits, the repeated emphasis on the exclusivity of the competence of Member States in its declarations enables them to avoid taking a unified stance[4]. Obviously, the different use of forests at the national level is the main reason for the lack of agreement on a common forestry policy, and this despite the integrative tendencies of the EU for coordination policies. However, a study by Drs. Winkel and Sotirov of the perceptions by institutional and non-institutional actors (businesses and NGOs) of the policymaking process of the European forestry policies shines another light on their current dispersion[5].

This study, encompassing both the “conservative” and the “forest industry” side, determines that both actors see the EU action as inefficient and immobilised, but attribute the responsibility for this state to their counterpart. When questioned about their actions within the European framework, both sides reveal a certain apprehension of the possibilities of harmonisation. This fear is justified by each sides’ perception that the European policymaking process on forestry is mainly influenced by the other, and their advocacy is therefore oriented at blocking what is perceived as “unfriendly harmonisation”.

This aspect reveals an interesting case in which what started as a specific national competence evolved gradually into an issue in need of coordination EU-wide. Today, instead of having the role of cooperation facilitator, the EU is blocked by the concerned stakeholders refusing to change a status quo they themselves do not find optimal. The authors of the study however debate the idea that such a status quo would not be interesting for European forests. While there is a certain need for coordination at the European level, such as regarding forest fires and climate change, the national differences in perceptions and use of the forest cannot be forced to unify. The wooded areas of the EU are expanding fast, and the countries with a strong forestry industry are not the last in the race. Sweden for example has the largest tree cover of Europe and one of the most active forestry sectors[6]. notably as long as they can be economically and environmentally sustainable. Aware of this fact, some stakeholders call for local strategies able to coordinate national policies on macroregional issues without the need for harmonisation at the European scale[7].


[1] Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests: Europeans and Their Forests: What Do Europeans Think About Forests and Sustainable Forest Management?

European Commission Survey on European consumer perception of forests:

[2] European Commission, DG AGRI, 2017

[3] European Commission, DG ENVI, 2017

[4] 2015 European Parliament report on new forest strategy, and comments by committees on Environment and Agriculture and Rural Development:

[5] G.Winkel, M. Sotirov: “Whose integration is this? European forest policy between the gospel of coordination, institutional competition, and a new spirit of integration” (via ResearchGate)


[7] Opinion on the implementation of EU macro-regional strategies, European Parliament, 28.09.2017

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