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EU Policy. Is Vienna set to break deadlock over Nature Restoration Law?

Vienna's Rathaus or city hall.
Vienna's Rathaus or city hall. Copyright Ronald Zak/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Ronald Zak/Copyright 2017 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Robert Hodgson
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Two of Austria's nine states have broken ranks, potentially ending a consensus that was preventing the federal government from voting in favour of the EU's Nature Restoration Law.

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A rift within Austria’s federal government and crumbling opposition in some regions means the country’s veto of EU legislation designed to reverse decades of ecosystem degradation across the union is now in question.

Austria is one of a group of countries that has said it would not support the proposed Nature Restoration Law (NRL) in an inter-governmental vote, despite previous agreement between the EU Council and European Parliament over the key environmental legislation.

Environment minister Leonore Gewessler, a Green and a staunch supporter of the law, has been constrained by the opposition of all of Austria’s nine federal states. But in recent days, Carinthia and Vienna have both signalled their support for the nature restoration legislation, subject to certain assurances from the government.

A reversal by Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party of its previous support in the European Parliament meant there was no longer the qualified majority of member states needed for what should have been a final rubber stamp after a provisional agreement between MEPs and government delegates.

But it also means that a U-turn in the other direction by any single country in the blocking minority – which includes Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden - means the law could be adopted.

Mayor and state governor Michael Ludwig said on Wednesday (22 May) that it was “very clear” to him that Vienna supported the law and wrote to the other eight regions arguing that their “legitimate concerns about [the regulation] have largely been allayed” by the compromise struck with a similarly sceptical European Parliament, since adopted in a plenary vote.

In an emailed statement, Gewessler said it was “harmful and wrong” that the Austrian regions had moved in concert to block the legislation. Things were now “moving forward”, she said, and called on Carinthia as well as Vienna to nail its colours to the mast.

“If the federal states abandon their uniform position, everyone can rely on one thing: I will do everything I can to ensure that Austria agrees to the EU law on the protection of nature,” Gewessler said.

A source in the current Belgian presidency of the EU Council told Euronews the nature law would be put back on the agenda as soon as it is clear that it enjoys qualified majority support, which would mean a final vote at a summit of environment ministers scheduled for 17 June – just days before Belgium hands over the reins to Hungary.

Gewessler faces opposition, however, from Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer, of the conservative People's Party, who on Thursday (23 May) restated his opposition to a law he described as emblematic of a “mania for over-regulation” by Brussels, according to local press reports.

WWF Austria dismissed Nehammer’s remarks as “misleading and false” and said his rejection of the law lacks any scientific basis. But chief spokesperson for the NGO, Leonhard Steinmann, told Euronews that “strictly legally speaking” it was “still not sufficiently clear” what the change of heart by Vienna and Carinthia meant for Austria’s support at the EU level.

“Nature is our best ally against the climate and biodiversity crisis,” WWF Austria said. “That is why we now need a political alliance of all constructive forces so Austria can vote in favour of the law at EU level.”

Vienna-based environmental umbrella organisation Umweltdachverband (UWD) was more optimistic, saying in an email exchange that it was unlikely now that the two regions would backtrack with their Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) leaderships even drawing support from Green voters.

“This clears the way for Gewessler to agree to the law, and she will do so if she no longer risks being branded a ‘lawbreaker’ and prosecuted with the consent of the two states,” UWD press officer Tina Leonhard said.

The NRL law would require member states to ensure collectively that the natural environment in at least 20% of EU land and sea is subject to restoration measures by 2030, and set concrete targets for action on certain ecosystem types, such as the rewetting of drained peatlands.

Austrian green groups have urged the regional leaders to end their opposition to the law, while a recent poll commissioned by NGOs suggests legislating for nature restoration is supported by around three quarters of the public in the countries that are blocking it.

Amended on 27 May to correct date of__Environment Council summit.

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