EU Accession to CITES: Unity or Disunity?

Last month the European Union became the first regional entity to accede to CITES.  This means that the EU will have a greater capacity to participate in the regime and assist non-EU states with CITES-related projects.  Additionally, the EU can cast one vote that carries the weight of a vote from each member state that is also a party to CITES.  Still, there is room for individual member states to assert their own preferences.  This has implications for how the EU will engage with CITES moving forward.

Since 1984 the European Union has been involved with the implementation of CITES with observer status but has not been a formal party to the regime, as CITES was originally developed to be composed only of individual states.  In 1983 the Gaborone Amendment was proposed, which would make it possible for “regional economic integration organizations” to accede to the regime.  It was not until thirty years later in October 2013 that the amendment entered into force after Costa Rica cast a vote of acceptance and pushed the amendment over the approval threshold of 2/3rds of the members.  After the passage of the Gaborone Amendment the European Parliament and European Council proceeded to work through and debate the prospect of joining CITES.  After over a year of this process the European Parliament voted to accede on December 16, 2014.

A case study for the implications of the EU’s accession is a high-profile March 2013 vote to add additional restrictions on hunting and trading polar bears during the 16th meeting of the CITES Conference of Parties in Bangkok, Thailand.  While the European Union member states had intended to vote as one in favor of the measure, Denmark wanted to vote against it in order to protect polar bear hunting in Greenland.  Because of the high threshold needed for the EU to collectively cast its CITES votes one way or another, a single state was able to hold the entire 27-member voting bloc hostage and all the other EU member states ended up having to abstain.  The measure did not pass, and may not have passed even with the EU’s votes.  But this case raises concerns about the EU’s ability to act as a collective in relation to CITES and indeed other multilateral institutions.

Now that the EU is its own voting member, it is true that if it casts a CITES vote the individual member states may not cast their own votes.  But the inverse is also true: member states can cast their own votes in the absence of an EU vote.  It is unclear whether the EU as a collective would have the power to override or nullify member state votes that go against overall EU preferences such as in the aforementioned polar bear case.  There is ambiguity over what competencies the EU has and which competencies are left to the states regarding CITES, because it covers both environmental and trade policy.  The EU’s new authority to cast votes could lead to a more coherent expression of the EU’s policy preferences, and with now 28 members of CITES this gives the organization considerable influence over voting outcomes.  But depending on how much division there is within the EU on certain issues, just a few dissenting member states could still be able to weaken the EU’s ability to effectively participate in the shaping of CITES with regards to voting and other aspects of CITES engagement and implementation.

Could other multi-state organizations follow the EU’s lead and accede to CITES?  One possible candidate would be ASEAN, whose member states have sought to tackle wildlife crime as a collective through initiatives such as the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN).  However, ASEAN lacks the politically integrated, supranational character of the EU and therefore does not meet the requirements for accession put forth under the Gaborone Amendment.  In order to accede to CITES a regional organization must not only be economically integrated but the organization itself must have CITES-related competencies that have been ceded to it by individual states.  It must also have a common legal framework for addressing illegal wildlife trade – such as the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations.  Currently the EU is the only such organization that meets all of the Gaborone requirements.

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