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The European Green Deal faces its moment of truth: nature restoration

Political parties in the European Parliament are bitterly split over the Nature Restoration Law.
Political parties in the European Parliament are bitterly split over the Nature Restoration Law. Copyright European Union, 2016.
Copyright European Union, 2016.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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The Green Deal, described by Ursula von der Leyen as "Europe's man on the moon moment," is about to undergo a litmus test.

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On Thursday morning, members of the European Parliament's environment committee (ENVI) are set to convene and vote on the Nature Restoration Law, a draft piece of legislation that has become the prime target of an extreme opposition campaign.

The controversy around the law has taken Brussels – and now Strasbourg – by storm, pitting a coalition of conservatives, farmers and fishers against left-wing parties, NGOs, scientists and, surprisingly, the private sector.

The backlash has reached such intensity that the first point on Thursday's agenda will ask MEPs whether to reject the legislation in its entirety, without further amendments or consultations. Two affiliate committees, agriculture (AGRI) and fisheries (PECH), have already struck down the text, raising the stakes even higher for what is expected to be a knife-edge decision.

How exactly did nature restoration become so contentious?

The law currently on the table was first presented by the European Commission in June 2022. The text, referred to as the "first continent-wide, comprehensive law of its kind," aims to restore habitats and species that have been degraded by human activity and climate change.

It sets out legally-binding targets in seven specific topics, from pollinating insects to marine ecosystems, that put together should cover at least 20% of the European Union's land and sea areas by 2030. (The target was later boosted to 30% in order to align the bloc with the landmark deal struck at COP15 in December.)

The Nature Restoration Law, like all pieces that make up the European Green Deal, is ambitious and far-reaching, reflecting the extent of the problem it tries to tackle: 81% of European habitats are in poor status, with peatlands, grasslands and dunes hit the worst, according to the Commission's estimates.

The executive considers climate change and biodiversity loss to be the two sides of the same coin: one phenomenon exacerbates the other, and vice versa, making it indispensable to tackle both challenges at the same time.

The gloves are off

While this reasoning is shared across the political spectrum, the design of the Nature Restoration Law, and in particular its legally binding targets, has sparked an outcry from right-wing parties, who claim the legislation, in its current form, will force farmers to abandon some of their fields, endanger Europe's supply chains, push food prices up and even hinder the roll-out of renewables.

COPA-COGECA and Europeche, the leading associations that lobby for European farmers and fishers, respectively, have called the draft law an "ill-thought out, unrealistic and unimplementable" proposal that is bound to have "devastating consequences" for farming, forestry and fisheries.

But no other group personifies this opposition better than the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), the parliament's largest formation, which has launched a relentless campaign to bring down the Nature Restoration Law.

Following several rounds of negotiations with other political parties, the EPP decided last month to walk out from the talks. Days later, the EPP submitted the agenda point to the ENVI committee to outright reject the legislation.

"This piece of legislation is simply a bad proposal," Manfred Weber, chair of the EPP group, said on Tuesday, urging other lawmakers to vote down the law. "This is not the right moment. This is our position."

In Weber's view, the obligations imposed by the Nature Restoration Law would spill over beyond Europe and worsen food insecurity in low-income countries, a scenario he linked to the ongoing dispute over tariff-free grain coming from Ukraine.

"Nobody can tell me what is the answer on food production. The issue is huge! We talk about North Africa, about migration. People are escaping because they don't feel they have a perspective anymore," the German MEP said.

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Weber then refuted accusations that he was blackmailing EPP lawmakers to abide by the party's official line and accused the European Commission of employing "external infrastructure," that is NGOs, to defend the Nature Restoration Law.

"Give me arguments. Give me a better piece of legislation," Weber said.

That same day, Stanislav Polčák, a Czech MEP who sits with the EPP, announced on Twitter he would actually vote in favour of the legislation, saying "the prosperity of our society goes hand in hand with the quality of the environment."

Hours later, he had a change of heart.

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"I do not consider the EPP's overall rejection of the proposal to be a good decision, but I decided to respect it," he wrote. "As my position became so fundamentally against my group, I have asked to be substituted at Thursday's vote."

'Fundamentally wrong'

In the face of mounting criticism, environmental organisations have struck a surprising alliance with the private sector to defend the Nature Restoration Law.

In a public letter released ahead of Thursday's vote, CEOs and top executives from 50 companies, including IKEA, Nestlé, H&M, Iberdrola and Unilever, urged European lawmakers to "urgently" adopt rules on nature protection to create legal certainty for businesses, ensure fair competition and foster innovation.

"Our dependence on a healthy environment is fundamental to the resilience of our economies and, ultimately, our long-term success," the CEOs wrote.

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WindEurope, the association that represents Europe's wind industry, published its own statement debunking one of the EPP's most widely circulated claims: the Nature Restoration Law will make it harder to deploy renewables across Europe.

"This is fundamentally wrong. Nature restoration and the expansion of wind energy go hand in hand," the association said.

Meanwhile, ClientEarth, BirdLife Europe, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) have stepped up their public outreach to directly counteract the EPP's no-holds-barred opposition, which the NGOs see as influenced by the upcoming European elections and the abrupt rise of BBB, the agrarian populist party that has disrupted Dutch politics.

"It's a campaign that has been based on the active distribution of disinformation," Ioannis Agapakis, a lawyer at ClientEarth, told Euronews in an interview.

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"Each of the arguments that are being used goes against science, goes against the letter of the law, and for sure, not in support of the European Green Deal. So for me, the turn of events has been really, really concerning on that front."

Agapakis argues nature restoration can take many forms and adapt to the socio-economic conditions of different regions, making it a case-by-case strategy rather than a one-size-fits-all solution. The law is "quite flexible," the lawyer says, because it would allow EU countries to draft their own national plans to meet the overall target.

"For anyone that has read the actual proposal, it is clear that nowhere in the proposal does the Commission mention that agricultural production needs to stop in the areas where restoration will take place," Agapakis said.

"On the other hand, I think that there are certain restoration practices that will boost agricultural production. So these types of narratives and these types of arguments are, first and foremost, not based on the content of the law itself."

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For its part, the European Commission, whose president, Ursula von der Leyen, is affiliated with the EPP, is trying to find a balance between safeguarding the integrity of its proposal and staying away from the raucous fight between political parties.

The executive has circulated non-papers, seen by Euronews, in which it refutes one by one the main points of criticism levelled at the restoration law, including the notion that nature restoration precludes any sort of economic activity.

This correlation is inaccurate, the Commission says, because nature restoration does not require the creation of protected areas, which is a separate legal category. A restored habitat can in fact prolong soil lifespans and offer farmers long-term opportunities to reinvent their practices and reduce their carbon footprint.

"The democratic process is ongoing," a Commission spokesperson said in a statement. "It is now for the ENVI Committee and the plenary to express themselves."

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