EU nature restoration laws in balance as member states withdraw support

Brussels: The EU’s nature restoration laws are on the verge of collapse after a number of member states, including Hungary and Italy, withdrew support for the legislation.

Spain’s environment minister, Teresa Ribera, said it would be “enormously irresponsible” for countries to drop the laws, which have been two years in the making and are designed to reverse decades of damage to biodiversity on land and in waterways.

But a vote at a summit of environment ministers in Brussels on Monday was cancelled after it became apparent that the legislation would not pass its final stage with the majority vote required.

One diplomat said the bill now had “very little” chance of getting through as any substantial changes in the text would require a return to the European parliament for a second reading, which was almost impossible.

The setback is not the first to hit the EU’s environmental agenda, as policymakers decide how to respond to farmers’ protests. As the protests continue – in advance of the European parliament’s elections in June – many green rules have already been weakened.

“It would be enormously irresponsible to drop the entire European green agenda. Europe cannot afford to drop the green agenda, just as it cannot afford to let its ecosystems die or leave its system in poor condition, in a state of danger,” said Ribera.

Spain, which has seen record droughts in the past year with reservoirs in the south still perilously low after the winter, is deeply concerned about the climate crisis’s impact on the economy.

“Nature does not allow recreational breaks, just as the climate system does not allow recreational breaks. It would be enormously irresponsible to … listen to those who claim that green agenda slows down or goes backwards,” Ribera added.

The Dutch climate minister, Rob Jetten, acknowledged the increased political scrutiny before June’s vote. “With the upcoming European elections, it won’t be easy to get out of this position,” Jetten said of the nature law.

Hopes for the bill faded at last week’s summit of EU leaders. Sweden, the Netherlands and Italy were opposed but the bill still had a slim majority. Then Hungary tipped the balance, indicating it would not support the legislation even though Viktor Orbán’s MEPs had supported its passage through the European parliament. Austria, Belgium, Finland and Poland have said they will abstain.

One member state which is not supporting the bill said on Monday nothing would change its mind. “We can’t tell our farmers, ‘we got everything you asked for’ in terms of concessions from Brussels one day and reintroduce burdens for farmers the next.”

If passed, the laws would mean that work on reversing biodiversity destruction on 20% of member states’ land and waterways would have to be started by the end of the decade. This has been the target of fierce opposition by political parties across the bloc who are fighting to contain the rise of the radical right.

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EU leaders have tried to assuage farmers’ concerns, announcing delays on rules on unused land as well as supply chain support to fight exploitation by supermarkets seeking to keep down costs for consumers.

“The agricultural sector is a very important sector, not only in Hungary, but everywhere in Europe,” Hungary’s state secretary for environment, Anikó Raisz, said on Monday.

After the EU leaders’ summit last week, the European Commission president, Ursula Von der Leyen, urged politicians to see the economic growth potential that would flow from environmental laws, which include packages to promote green energy from solar power and wind turbines.

“You should not take the European green deal [the package of EU environment laws] as a scapegoat, on the contrary it is the step forward to modernise our economy,” she said.