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Deadlock over contentious Nature Restoration Law throws its fate into hands of EU Parliament

The EU’s environment committee of 88 MEPs was split down the middle in a highly anticipated vote this morning.

LAST UPDATE | Jun 27th 2023, 10:58 AM

THE EU’S PROPOSED new law to restore degraded land around Europe has been rejected by a committee of MEPs after weeks of heated debate, pushing the fate of the legislation into the hands of a full session of the EU parliament.

The Nature Restoration Law would set specific targets for the first time on restoring nature through measures such as rewetting areas of drained peatlands, increasing green spaces in urban areas, and improving biodiversity in lands used for agriculture and forestry.  

The proposed law has seen harsh divisions emerge between MEPs who disagree strongly about how ambitious the targets should be and the measures that should be included, casting major uncertainty over which way the vote would swing today. 

The European People’s Party, the political grouping that Fine Gael sits in and the EU’s largest political grouping, withdrew from the committee negotiations at the end of May and had campaigned for a vote against the law this morning.

The 88 MEPs of the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee were split down the middle, with 44 in favour of the law and 44 against.

The proposal required a majority to receive the committee’s approval. Failing to reach that threshold, it has been rejected.

A full plenary session of the EU Parliament will discuss the proposal in July. The ENVI committee will recommend that the law is rejected, though MEPs can still choose how they will vote on the matter.

Supporters of the law say that it is a crucial piece of legislation to get the ball rolling much faster on protecting and restoring the natural world that has suffered under human influence to allow plants, animals, birds and insects to survive and thrive, carbon to be stored in the land instead of being released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, and to allow humans to continue to benefit from the land in areas like food production and water quality.

Opponents’ main concerns are with the capacity of member states to actually carry out the measures proposed, the amount of land that would need to be restored, and to what extent that could mean land currently used for agriculture would need to be repurposed, either for different types of farming that may yield less income or for something else altogether. 

The ENVI committee convened this morning for a second time to vote on the law. It was initially due to formalise its stance on the proposal earlier this month but a meeting jam-packed with amendments went over time, forcing the final vote to be postponed to today.

In the meantime, the EU Council, which is made up of leaders from member states, voted on its position on the law – one that approved moving forward with the legislative process but took a more conservative line than the plan envisioned in the EU Commission’s original proposal.

Two Irish MEPs had a vote on the committee; Grace O’Sullivan of the Greens and Mick Wallace of the Left.

Both have expressed disappointment at the outcome.

O’Sullivan said it was “one of our last chances to show if the EU is a leader or a loser in halting the precipitous decline of biodiversity in Ireland and beyond”.

“In a period where we are losing healthy habitats and animal populations at a rate of knots, it is vital that we get a more ambitious outcome in the plenary vote in July,” she said.

We know that biodiversity collapse immediately threatens nature and agriculture. It is unacceptable for political leaders to choose to do nothing.”

Wallace, who is the Left group’s shadow rapporteur on the law, said that “six months of work has been thrown out with this vote” but that he still has “hope that we can eventually pass this desperately needed legislation”.

“I have no doubt EPP will continue their campaign of blatant disinformation,” he said, adding that the “vote has become deeply politicised”.

“No matter what the content of the regulation might be, EPP has made a political decision to kill it.

We are approaching the sixth mass extinction according to scientists, so it cannot be overstated how important this piece of legislation is.

“The science is absolutely clear, the biggest threats to our food security and to the future of agriculture are the climate and biodiversity crises, and the nature restoration regulation is crucial to address both.”

The European People’s Party had reaffirmed its stance against the law ahead of the meeting, calling for it to be rewritten.

Responding to the committee vote, Green Party MEP for Dublin Ciarán Cuffe labelled it a “real setback for nature, the climate, and the European Green Deal”.

“However, the proposal remains to be voted on later this month at the Plenary session of the Parliament in Strasbourg, and I am hoping that more progressive voices will succeed,” Cuffe said.

“Strong ecosystems can guarantee long-term food security and protection against droughts and other natural disasters for everyone living in Europe. The Plenary vote is the one that counts.”

The divisions between MEPs over the law have been reflected in Irish politics.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of Fine Gael said there were aspects of the law that he felt were “going too far and not fully recognising how we use land in Ireland in particular”, while junior minister Ossian Smyth of the Greens said he was “disappointed” with the EPP decision to pull out of negotiations: “Forget the coalition and politics, I think Irish people love nature and want to protect it.”

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