The Nature Restoration Law has survived a dramatic vote in the European Parliament but only by a razor-thin margin.
The closely-watched session on Wednesday resulted in 336 votes in favour of the amended law and 300 against, with 13 abstentions, prompting loud applause from progressive MEPs.
A motion to reject the legislation in its entirety, which would have dealt a heavy blow to the Green Deal, had earlier failed to garner enough support to pass.
"This law is good for even those who voted against it," said César Luena, the socialist lawmaker who serves as rapporteur and was visibly emotional.
"I want to especially thank the scientists and the youth because they convinced us that we need to have this law. And we're going to have it!"
The regulation will now be sent back to the parliament's environment committee, where it had been previously voted down by a 44-44 margin.
MEPs will then enter negotiations with member states, which have already agreed on a common position on the file, to fine-tune the provisions and craft a compromise text that could then be endorsed by both co-legislators.
The upcoming talks, whose success is by no means guaranteed, are expected to be protracted and divisive as a consequence of the months-long controversy surrounding the Nature Restoration Law, a comprehensive proposal that aims to rehabilitate at least 20% of Europe's degraded ecosystems by 2030.
The regulation establishes binding targets in seven fields of action, such as farmlands, peatlands, pollinators and sea bottoms, with the goal of reversing the environmental damage caused by unchecked human activity and climate change.
First presented by the European Commission in June 2022, it gained further significance after the landmark biodiversity deal struck by COP15 in December.
But in recent months, the law became the target of a no-holds-barred opposition campaign by right-wing parties, particularly by the European People's Party (EPP), the parliament's largest formation.
The EPP has repeatedly said the law, in its current form, would threaten the traditional livelihoods of European farmers and fishers, disrupt long-established supply chains, decrease food production, push prices up for consumers and even wipe out urban areas to make way for green spaces.
The claims have been widely contested by left-wing groups, the European Commission, dozens of NGOs, thousands of climate scientists, the renewable industry and big businesses like IKEA, H&M, Iberdrola, Unilever, Nestlé and Danone, all of whom insist nature restoration is perfectly compatible with human activity and essential to ensure the viability of European soils.
The EPP's incessant social media outreach, which last week introduced an outlandish claim about Santa Claus, has been described as "dirty tactics" and "disinformation" by environmental organisations.
A bitterly split hemicycle
The dispute effectively split the European Parliament into two seemingly irreconcilable factions. The political chasm was evident during a tense debate on Tuesday and was once again exposed by Wednesday's tight margin.
In the lead-up to the high-stakes vote, several conservative MEPs, such as Ireland's Frances Fitzgerald, Finland's Sirpa Pietikäinen and Czech Republic's Stanislav Polčák, had publicly broken ranks with the EPP's official line and declared their intention to give the Nature Restoration Law a chance to go through negotiations.
The parliament's records show that 21 EPP lawmakers disregarded the party's instructions and voted in favour of the whole text.
"I fully respect the individual colleagues who have their own opinion," Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP group, said in a press conference. "I'm a true parliamentarian."
Weber described Wednesday's vote as an "empty" victory for left-wing parties due to the watered-down text but said new elements, such as an emergency break in case food prices shoot up, made the law more palatable for his group, which, he confirmed, would come back to the negotiating table.
"We have fought for our convictions and we came very close," Weber said, decrying the "highly polarised" debate that he, himself, has fuelled.
One of the reasons conservatives appeared less combative, besides the humbling reckoning prompted by their parliamentary defeat, relates to a highly usual step taken by Renew Europe, the liberal group.
In a bid to overcome its internal differences, Renew Europe tabled an amendment that mimicked almost word by word the position adopted last month by member states in the EU Council, which had weakened several restoration obligations by making the binding targets more flexible.
"We'll break any partisan deadlock when it's needed," said Stéphane Séjourné, Renew Europe's president. "EPP Group, can we stop playing now and work again together for the general interest?"
In reaction to the news, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission's executive vice president in charge of the Green Deal who has been the main target of the EPP's social media campaign, welcomed the hemicycle's endorsement and lamented that "so much nonsense" had polluted the Nature Restoration Law debate.
"I offer my open hand to the EPP to find compromises that would be agreeable to them as well," Timmermans said in Strasbourg. "We couldn't understand what their problem was with the content because they rejected it out of hand without telling us precisely what they didn't like."
Asked if Manfred Weber could be trusted in the upcoming negotiations, Timmermans did not seem totally convinced. "I've given up interpreting what Mr Weber thinks," he said. "I will just have to see what happens."
This article has been updated with reactions to the vote.