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Belgium in eight-week sprint to close deals on emissions, packaging waste legislation

Decorations go up at EU Council headquarters in Brussels as Belgium takes over the six-month rotating presidency.
Decorations go up at EU Council headquarters in Brussels as Belgium takes over the six-month rotating presidency. Copyright European Union
Copyright European Union
By Robert Hodgson
Published on Updated
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As Belgium takes over the EU Council presidency, it has just eight weeks to reach a deal with the European Parliament on a hotly debated law designed to reverse rapid growth in packaging waste, as well limits on CO2 emissions from lorries and rules on carbon removal certification.

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The Green Deal has been a cornerstone of the European Commission’s political programme under the leadership of German former defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, whose mandate has one year to run. For many, progress made on the package of new climate, energy and environmental legislation will mark the success or failure of the outgoing EU executive – and time is fast running out to get some key laws over the line.

It survived the covid pandemic, with former vice-president Frans Timmermans rebuffing, sometimes angrily, calls from industry to freeze legislation on issues from plastic waste to pollution from cars. The then director of the green deal told the European Parliament’s environment committee in April 2020, at the height of the first lockdown, that it was an “illusion” to imagine a lasting economic recovery could be built on propping up polluting industries for whom the writing was already on the wall.

Then the energy crisis spurred by Russia’s full-scale invasion on Ukraine in February 2022 saw the EU double down on the deployment of renewable energy infrastructure, for example through emergency laws easing planning permission for wind farm deployment.

But the closing months of the von der Leyen commission’s five-year term have seen signs of a kind of green fatigue in Brussels, and an apparent determination in some quarters to make environment policy a dividing line in EU elections scheduled for 6-9 June. Recent months have seen the European People’s Party (EPP), in particular, push back against a number of remaining environment policy bills. A watered-down Nature Restoration Law, intended to reverse seemingly inexorable ecosystem destruction, only narrowly squeaked through parliament just shy of a year after the EU signed up to a UN Global Biodiversity Framework to protect 30% of the world’s land and sea habitats.

This is the background against which Belgium, which assumed the rotating presidency of the EU Council this month, must forge compromises with European Parliament negotiators on a trio of climate and environment policy files. In practical terms, this means wrapping up the worst of the haggling and horse trading by the end of February. The concern is that failing to do so before the EU (and, incidentally, Belgium, which holds its own national and local elections at the same time) goes into full election campaign mode, could leave some of the Green Deal legislation at the mercy of a new crop of MEPs with different policy priorities.

The Belgian programme

Belgium has named only a few green policy files that it explicitly aims to close, rather than simply move forward during its presidency. These include the Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF), specifying how forests and hoped for technological fixes like direct air capture and undersea storage should count towards reducing Europe’s carbon footprint. Also due for completion are updated CO2 emissions standards for heavy duty vehicles like lorries and buses. And after an intergovernmental agreement brokered by Spain on 18 December, we can add to the list the new Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, intended to reduce the mountains of discarded wrappers, boxes and containers – 181 kilogrammes a year per capita and climbing – that all too often end up in incinerators or landfill. It has proved one of the most heavily lobbied pieces of Green Deal legislation to date, with business groups even targeting policy makers with billboards around Brussels.

Now it is up to Belgium to represent governments in final negotiations with the European Parliament, which take place behind closed doors, with mediation from the Commission, in a forum known as a ‘trilogue’. Lawmakers must agree waste reduction targets and how to achieve them through measures such as restrictions on fast food packaging, recycling targets and requirements for reuse, and mandatory deposit-return schemes. As ever, national priorities have impinged on talks: a possible exemption for wine bottles has already seen Belgium and Czechia demand a similar carve-out for brewers of beer. Still, Belgian environment minister Alain Maron said the intergovernmental deal struck in December was a good basis for negotiations with the European Parliament, and thanked his peers for their encouragement to “close this file in the coming months”.

A typical six-month EU Council presidency sees the legislative deliberations continue up to the last minute. However, with EU elections scheduled for 6-9 June, and the parliament set to hold its final plenary session before the summer in late April, any provisional deals between MEPs and governments will have to be struck by early March at the very latest if they are to be formally approved in Strasbourg. This would avoid what the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an umbrella group of environmental NGOs, described before Christmas as “the looming risk of a less progressive Parliament” taking office before the laws are adopted.

For other green files – and there are many, ranging from a proposal to halve pesticide use across Europe that was rejected by the current parliament, to a proposal that would outlaw spurious ‘green claims’ for supposedly eco- or climate-friendly products and services – Belgium is looking to forge intergovernmental agreements, with a view to the EU Council entering talks with MEPs after the summer. These talks can continue right through to the end of June.

The presidency has already scheduled trilogues on the packaging waste regulation for the 5 February and the 4 March. This means they plan to take the negotiations to the wire: early February is the latest point from which an agreed text could be translated into all 24 official EU languages in time for adoption at the last sitting of the European Parliament in April. If a deal is struck only on 4 March, it would still be technically possible to put it to the vote, a presidency source told Euronews, while acknowledging the necessary bureaucratic fudge would be a “less elegant” solution.

Belgium also hopes to secure a negotiating mandate from EU governments on new EU rules for genetically modified crops, although a trilogue deal could be a tall order with MEPs yet to adopt their position (the parliamentary environment committee is slated to adopt its draft report on 11 January). The proposal for a regulation on New Genomic Techniques was tabled in September and greeted with alarm by green groups who see it as a broad-brush deregulation, classifying many crops produced using precision gene-editing techniques as equivalent to traditionally bred strains.

Faustine Bas-Defossez, the EEB’s director for nature, health and environment, told Euronews that it was “concerning” to see Belgium making references only to ‘advancing’ certain files such as the Ambient Air Quality Directive, rather than pushing to conclude negotiations. In a memorandum listing ‘ten green tests’ for the presidency, published in late December, the NGO umbrella group urged the closure of as many of the Green Deal files as possible. Current projections based on recent opinion polls show there is a significant risk that the next parliament will be more conservative, and one that would have likely rejected the Nature Restoration Law outright Bas-Defossez said.

“Also, now that the President of the European Commission has put forward a proposal to revise the protection status of the wolf, it will be for the Belgian presidency to demonstrate the EU’s global leadership on tackling the nature crisis by rejecting the European Commission proposal to lower the protection status of the wolf under the Bern Convention,” Bas-Defossez said.

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