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Nature Restoration Law gets green light from EU Parliament, including all Irish MEPs

Despite previous divisions over the highly debated law, all of Ireland’s 13 MEPs ultimately backed it in this morning’s vote.

LAST UPDATE | Jul 12th 2023, 12:35 PM

THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT has voted in favour of the Nature Restoration Law after months of discord among MEPs.

The legislation package is looking to set specific targets for the first time on restoring nature through measures such as rewetting some drained peatlands, increasing green spaces in urban areas, and improving biodiversity in land used for agriculture and forestry.

A highly anticipated vote in Strasbourg this morning received 336 votes in favour, 300 against and 13 abstentions.

Despite previous divisions, all of Ireland’s 13 MEPs ultimately backed the law.

An initial vote on whether to reject the law outright was defeated, with MEPs proceeding to vote on amendments that led up to the final decision.

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MEPs disagreed strongly over the last few months about how ambitious the targets should be and the measures that should be included, vocally nailing their flags to masts in a high-profile debate that has come just one year ahead of the next EU elections.

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.

However, in a surprising move, Ireland’s Fine Gael MEPs confirmed that they would not vote outright against the law today, pushing instead for amendments that would scale down the ambition of the original proposal but stop short of killing the law.

At committee stage, 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 and was thus rejected, pushing the matter to a full plenary session of the parliament.

Supporters of the law said it was 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 were 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 EU Council, which is made up of leaders from member states, has also voted on its position on the law, lending support to moving forward with the legislative process but taking a more conservative line than the plan envisioned in the EU Commission’s original proposal.

Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly, who has previously spoken out against the law, said ahead of this morning’s vote that he would not seek to reject the legislation, pushing instead for amendments that would move the legislation away from the Commission’s original level of ambition.

“I cannot vote to reject this law for a number of reasons, primarily because the Council have done a good job in amending some of the worst parts of the proposals,” Kelly said.

He said that voting to reject the law at the outset would also remove the opportunity to vote on proposed amendments to the law.

“At the end of the day, one has to do what one thinks is right, and the right thing to do is to vote not to reject, but to look at the proposals and the amendments one by one and then I think we can find a very good landing spot.”

Fellow Fine Gael MEPs Frances Fitzgerald, Colm Markey, Deirdre Clune and Maria Walsh likewise confirmed that they did not plan to vote against the law.

Green MEPs Grace O’Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe reiterated their positions in favour of the law.

Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews also voiced his support, saying it would be an “outrage” if the vote is not passed, as well as MEPs on the Left.

The European debate attracted an unusual level of attention in Ireland due to its links with farming and climate change.

A motion in the Dáil last week from Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice to oppose the law as proposed by the EU Commission was rejected by Government TDs, with 75 votes winning over 57 and four abstentions.

A second vote on backing the EU Council’s position received overwhelming support, with 121 TDs in favour over nine against and six abstentions.

‘Sigh of relief’

Two Irish MEPs had already voted on law in the ENVI committee; Grace O’Sullivan of the Greens and Mick Wallace of the Left.

Speaking after today’s vote, O’Sullivan said the law is “now an inevitability”.

“This is nothing short of a win for every person and place on the whole continent. We are all breathing a big sigh of relief today,” she said.

“Tomorrow we get back to work on negotiations with the Commission and Council.”

Wallace said that he was “pleased with the outcome of the final vote in the sense that the regulation lives to fight another day” but that “the text passed by Parliament today has been absolutely gutted”, calling it a “shell” of the Commission’s original proposal.

“We are approaching the sixth mass extinction according to scientists. 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,” he said.

“I am hopeful we can fix some of the problems with the text during negotiations with the Council but it will be an enormous task.”

In a statement, Fine Gael MEP Deirdre Clune said that she “supported constructive amendments to the legislation which will incentivise and enable farmers and fishers”.

“We are facing a biodiversity crisis. This is experienced first-hand by our agricultural community, who see the everyday impact on their businesses. It is also crucial that new funding is made available for farmers and landowners in order to support them in reaching restoration targets,” she said.

“The amendments which I voted for will allow for flexibility, which will enable the agricultural community to contribute to tackling biodiversity loss in a sustainable manner. “I don’t want to see a situation where farmers continue to be polarized from environmentalists.

“There is an onus on all of us to plan for a sustainable future – and we can’t leave anyone behind.”

Reacting to the news of the vote, Environment Minister Eamon Ryan said the Irish votes were “critical” and helped get it over the line. 

He said he was “thrilled” to see the vote result today. 

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