REVIEW | Understanding & tackling IWT in Europe: Knowledge Exchange at the European Parliament

On the day of the UK's departure from the European Union, Teresa Lappe-Osthege and Hannah Dickinson reflect on their recent IWT Knowledge Exchange at the European Parliament.

On 22 January, BIOSEC and White Rose Brussels invited key policy-makers, experts, civil society organisations and representatives of national governments to join our Knowledge Exchange Roundtable on the illegal wildlife trade in Europe. Hosted at the European Parliament by MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber Shaffaq Mohammed, alongside MEP for South East England Catherine Bearder and Team Leader on EU CITES and Wildlife Trade Regulations at the European Commission Matthias Leonhard Maier, our researchers Hannah Dickinson and Teresa Lappe-Osthege presented and discussed the main findings of their research on the illegal trade in caviar and songbirds in Europe.

After introduction from Shaffaq Mohammed, and a welcome from Phil Holliday (White Rose Brussels), chair Prof Rosaleen Duffy opened the roundtable. Teresa Lappe-Osthege began with a discussion of the extent and scope of the illegal bird trade from the Western Balkans into the EU. She illustrated that the illegal bird trade had established links with a number of key EU Member States and argued that EU demand for illegal bird products, such as luxurious delicacies, was one of the key drivers of illegal killing and taking of birds in the Western Balkan region. Teresa cautioned that there were numerous challenges in tackling the trade in songbirds, particularly in contexts of differing national legislations, because legal and illegal activities were often closely intertwined.

Hannah Dickinson demonstrated that similar dynamics were at play in the illegal caviar trade in Europe. Highlighting that seizure data could be misleading, she illustrated that problems arose from one part of the caviar trade taking place legally (i.e. the trade in farmed caviar), while another part is criminalised (i.e. the trade in wild caviar). Hannah’s research revealed that enforcement of existing legislation was particularly difficult when it came to processes taking place in between the source and the consumer markets, such as the repackaging and labelling of caviar. She argued that more attention needed to be paid to those processes in the middle of the supply chain in order to fully understand the dynamics that enable the illegal caviar trade in Europe.

European Commission representative Matthias Leonhard Maier provided a useful overview of the state of existing legislation on the illegal wildlife trade within the EU. Discussing the upcoming review of the EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking, Matthias cautioned that the success of the action plan depended on buy-in from the EU Member States and other key actors such as the European External Action Service or in-country EU delegations. This is due to the document not being legally binding. Acknowledging the role of wider EU legislation (e.g. the forthcoming EU biodiversity strategy), Matthias identified the lack of IWT regulation within the EU Common Market as one of the most significant gaps in addressing IWT in Europe.

MEP Catherine Bearder reflected on her long-standing work in the European Parliament driving action on issues related to IWT, focusing particularly on her leadership of the MEPs for Wildlife group. Citing a recent case of illegal bird trade in a pub in East London, Catherine acknowledged that IWT within Europe had not received sufficient attention. She emphasised that many obstacles persisted, particularly when it came to the enforcement of existing legislation and argued that political will and commitment were the most important preconditions to addressing IWT in Europe.

Although the event stirred fruitful discussions with civil society organisations and other experts on IWT, it was overshadowed by the looming departure of the UK from the EU. As a UK-based research project funded by the European Research Council, our Knowledge Exchange Roundtable illustrated the benefits of engaging with a variety of stakeholders at the heart of the EU and the importance of continued research funding for projects advancing our understanding of transnational issues, such as IWT in Europe.

For further reading on our research into Europe’s songbird and caviar trades, please see our page on European Trades.