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Opinion EU failure to pass the Nature Restoration Law shows a worrying shift to the right

In the midst of a biodiversity crisis, the environment has been badly let down by EU politics this week, writes Pádraic Fogarty.

JUST AS THE Nature Restoration Law appeared set to be finally approved, after two years of controversy, a number of member states have dealt what appears to be a fatal blow.

What is normally a formality, after votes in the European Parliament, committees and deal breaking between institutions, last weekend several countries, including Sweden, Belgium, Poland and the Netherlands, said they will not support the new Law, and so denying it the majority needed for approval.

Procedurally, this condemns the Law to zombie status; technically there is hope if those countries can change their minds, but this seems unlikely. It’s a huge blow to the European public, which is increasingly alarmed at the deterioration of the natural environment, but also to the EU itself, which had hoped to be seen as a global leader in addressing the extinction crisis.

The farmers

On the surface, it would appear that months of farmer protests were the driver for countries that had previously been supportive to change their minds. Lobbying from farmer organisations has also succeeded in torpedoing whatever was left of the ‘Green Deal’, including killing off new measures to protect soil and develop sustainable farming systems, extending the use of plant-killing chemical glyphosate for another ten years, and weakening already weak environmental conditions associated with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Watching farmers burn tyres and spray Brussels with slurry on Tuesday, you would hardly believe that a third of the entire EU budget is devoted to them and that inside the corridors of power, politicians were scrambling to acquiesce to their demands.

However, a deeper cause for the backlash against the environmental agenda is that politicians are also scrambling to save their jobs. Chief among them is Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who is seeking re-election to the post and recently secured the nomination of her right wing European People’s Party (EPP) to be their candidate. Leader of the EPP, Manfred Weber, you might remember, spearheaded the failed attempt to kill off the Nature Restoration Law last summer.

Von der Leyen herself has maintained a cool remove from the debate, despite declaring the Green Deal as our ‘moon shot’ back in 2019. The man most associated with the Deal was Frans Timmermans, who left the Commission last year to fight in Dutch elections that saw the far right win the biggest share. His own party block came a distant second.

The status quo

Elections for the European Parliament in June are widely expected to deliver a win for the right and far right, effectively leading to a contest to see who can be seen to be resisting the ‘green agenda’ most, something that has been lumped in with the ‘woke ideology’. Against this background, and should this swing to the right materialise, the Nature Restoration Law is surely doomed.

Ireland’s minister for environment Eamon Ryan launched a stout defence of the Law at the European Council on Monday, hitting out at the Belgian presidency for seeking a ‘pause’ in regulations and for failing to see the critical importance of nature restoration for its own sake, but also as inseparable from the broader fight to stop the destabilisation of the climate system.

He described the abandonment of nature as a “disgrace” and said that “this is not the time to hit the pause button”. The Irish government, including our MEPs, has been notable in its fulsome support for the Nature Restoration Law, something that has not been inconsequential given the very tight voting margins in the European Parliament.

However, the Irish government has also supported the extension of the licence for glyphosate use and the removal of environmental conditions in the CAP. It also finds itself continuously hauled before the European Court of Justice for failing to implement existing environmental law, most recently on turf mining in Special Areas of Conservation.

weedkillers-in-a-non-food-store Failure of Nature Restoration Law means another decade of glyphosate in the form of weedkiller. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

At home, Irish farmer organisations cheered the imminent death of the Nature Restoration Law while only days later insisting that the public bail out farmers who are suffering from the impacts of prolonged wet weather. How they can square these positions is anyone’s guess. Ditching the law hardly does away with the urgent need for nature restoration which, despite the baffling opposition, provides the best hope for farmers to adapt to an increasingly unreliable climate.


Meanwhile, the conflicting messages from the government can be seen as reflecting an incoherence among the big parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – when it comes to action on climate and biodiversity. The same can be said for Sinn Féin, which has no particular policies in this area and voted against the Nature Restoration Law in the European Parliament last month. The Green Party has said that Ireland will move ahead with nature restoration even without a law from Brussels, but whether it does or not will depend on the makeup of the next government.

As in many European capitals, too many politicians here do not see green policies as vote-winners. They are banking on the electorate to be not that bothered about environmental issues when it comes to how they will vote. Ultimately, if people want action in this area they have to vote for politicians who take it seriously, starting at the local and European elections in June.

Pádraic Fogarty is an environmental campaigner.