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Dispute over Doñana park prompts scathing accusations between conservatives and socialists

EPP Chair Manfred Weber and S&D Leader Iratxe García exchanged accusations over the Doñana National Park.
EPP Chair Manfred Weber and S&D Leader Iratxe García exchanged accusations over the Doñana National Park. Copyright European Parliament.
Copyright European Parliament.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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S&D Leader Iratxe García said EPP Chair Manfred Weber was "making a fool of himself" after Weber attacked the European Commission's partiality.

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The battle over Spain's Doñana National Park has escalated to a no-holds-barred exchange of accusations between the leaders of the conservative and socialist parties in the European Parliament, leaving the European Commission caught in the middle of the public quarrel.

Manfred Weber, the chair of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the largest formation in the hemicycle, has accused the Commission of playing "party politics" and campaigning in favour of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, one of Europe's most prominent socialist leaders.

"What we need is a Commission who tries to contribute solutions, to try to bring people together, and not splitting up (people) from a party political background," Weber said on Wednesday. 

Weber's claims were quickly denounced by Iratxe García Pérez, a close ally of Sánchez's and the leader of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group.

"In politics, there are two lines that should never be crossed: one is lying and the other is making a fool of yourself. And in this case, the EPP has crossed both lines," García said.

The increasingly bitter dispute stems from a law proposed by the regional government of Andalucía, led by the right-wing Partido Popular (PP), to legalise irrigation in over 800 hectares in a section of the Doñana National Park, using only surface waters.

The Andalusian executive argues that expansion is necessary to help local farmers mitigate a persistent drought and grant them a legal way to obtain additional water for their crops. Farmers in this area have a particular focus on red fruits like strawberries, which require regular irrigation.

The central government in Madrid opposes the measure on environmental grounds, arguing the law is "deceitful" because it is promising to bring water flows that do not exist.

"There's not going to be any water. It's impossible," Deputy Prime Minister Teresa Ribera said in a recent interview with El Pais newspaper.

The European Commission has also expressed its concern about the consequences of expanding irrigation in the Doñana National Park, which is home to one of Europe's largest wetlands and holds UNESCO's title of World Heritage Site since 1994.

For decades, the park's rich biodiversity has been threatened by intensive farming, over-exploitation, the draining of mashes, the use of illegal wells and the continued influx of tourists, further compounding the damaging impact of climate change.

The Commission has been raising the alarm over the natural reserve's deteriorating state since at least 2014 when it first sent a letter of formal notice to the Spanish central government.

In 2021, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) condemned Spain for ignoring the excessive water extraction in Doñana and for failing to conserve the protected natural areas.

The Andalusian draft law has now brought the issue back to the fore, pushing a regional dispute to the highest echelons of power in Brussels.

The Commission has repeatedly said that should the law be passed, it would employ "all available means" to make Spain comply with the ECJ ruling.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the Environment, has become personally involved in the case and held this week separate meetings with representatives of the Andalusian government, the EPP and the S&D group.

In a closed-door meeting with Ramón Fernández-Pacheco, the Andalusian Counsellor for the environment, Sinkevičius warned of "disastrous effects" and "excessive pressure" over water supplies if the law is approved in its present state.

Pacheco said he was open to dialogue but underlined the current law would "absolutely not damage" the park's ecosystem because water flows would come from the surface, not from underground reserves.

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Weber vs García

The caveats by Sinkevičius, who was previously associated with Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, have infuriated Manfred Weber, whose party is aiming to score a new victory at Spain's general election later this year.

"I have to say the behaviour, what we saw from the responsible Commissioner is for us, EPP group, simply unacceptable," Weber said on Wednesday after two of his MEPs met with Sinkevičius.

"The most important thing is that everybody wants to find solutions but what I see now is quite a party political behaviour of the Commission, and especially of the Commissioner."

"That's why I have to be very clear," he went on.

"I see Commissioner (Sinkevičius) now presenting himself more and more with a red shirt of doing campaigning for (Pedro) Sanchez and not so much being present as a real solution-maker on this level."

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The remarks prompted a biting response from Iratxe García, who refuted Weber's claims and said the conservative leader has "lost his way" with his "unbelievable strategy" of attacking the Commission.

"I don't know where the EPP see electoralism in the Commission's response. They have a problem of distorting reality and they consider as electoralists and dangerous social-communists all those who don't think like they do," García told a Spanish radio channel.

"I don't know if this is an exchange of accusations or if it's rather an obsession from the EPP to attack those who don't think like them. We're talking a very serious issue," she went on.

"The EPP must understand that it must be part of the solution and not of the problem, which is what it has become."

In Madrid, Teresa Ribera deplored Weber's remarks as "irresponsible messages" and said her government was "fully committed" to preserving the park.

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The political tensions forced a rare statement from Sinkevičius himself, who took to Twitter to say the Commission was acting as an "impartial guardian" of the EU treaties and an enforcer of ECJ rulings.

"Doñana is important for Spain & the EU," he said on Wednesday evening.

The following day, a spokesperson for the European Commission voiced a similar viewpoint, insisting the executive was "strictly sticking to its institutional role" and would continue to assess the developments of the Andalusian law.

The spokesperson added that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is associated with the EPP, had confidence in "every member" of her college of Commissioners.

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