28th Sep 2023

MEPs denounce EPP 'fake news' on eve of key nature vote

  • The nature restoration law has triggered an unprecedented mobilisation in favour — from over a million citizens, big and small businesses, farmers, foresters, scientists and advocacy groups (Photo: Coline Balfroid)
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After a chaotic and deadlocked vote in the environment committee last month, MEPs will determine the future of the Nature Restoration Law on Wednesday (12 July) — amid a concerted pushback led by the centre-right European People's Party (EPP).

When MEPs arrived at the plenary in Strasbourg on Tuesday morning to debate the contents of the legislation one last time, it was already clear the vote on Wednesday was going to be tight, and that an unprecedented amount of people would be watching the results closely.

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Two opposing groups had organised last-minute rallies in front of the European Parliament to influence entering MEPs one last time.

"We need more money on our farm, not more bureaucracy," a speaker for the farmers lobby Copa-Cogena on a lorry with haystacks roared over Elvis Presley's 'Return to Sender'. "We don't want to count butterflies."

On the other side of the street, further from the entrance and harder to hear, stood climate activist Greta Thunberg who joined a protest in support of the nature restoration law.

The law has triggered an unprecedented mobilisation in its favour, from over a million citizens, big and small businesses, farmers, foresters, scientists and advocacy groups.

But what factors have contributed to the escalating controversy and why is this law so divisive?

EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said the law is "nothing less than the flagship initiative of the Green Deal" and the first update to protect ecosystems across the EU since Natura 2000 some 30 years ago.

"This very parliament called for a strong nature law, signed a declaration," he said, pointing out that too much of Europe's nature has been degraded or destroyed. "It is vital to reverse this trend and time is running out."

Fake news concerns

On Wednesday, MEPs will first vote on an EPP proposal to reject the commission's proposal. If there is no majority for rejection, then they will vote on the 136 amendments tabled by political groups.

EU member states have already agreed on a significantly watered-down version of the text, and the Spanish EU council presidency is ready to launch inter-institutional negotiations once — and if — the parliament adopts its position on Wednesday.

During a debate on Tuesday, socialist lead MEP César Luena urged colleagues to vote in favour of the law, claiming that the EPP has been spreading fake news over the nature restoration law — an issue that was already raised by scientists.

"Please, give it a chance" because otherwise the EU parliament will be remembered in history as an "obstacle" to nature laws, he told the plenary. "For the future, for the sake of the role of this parliament and the sake of history, please vote in favour."

The head of the liberal Renew Europe, MEP Stéphane Séjourné, also raised concerns over fake news around the proposal, arguing that only extremists benefited from the parliament's polarisation.

"The debate has gotten out of hand both in form and content," he admitted, arguing that it has become a "huge mess".

The nature restoration law has become a significant symbol, and now political football, for all parties in Brussels.

For the commission, this is the EU climate law for biodiversity, and the legislative path to achieve the targets set by 2030.

For some national capitals, however, it was used to ask for a regulatory memorandum — raising eyebrows about the broader long-term commitment of some EU member states to the Green Deal and the impact of the Ukraine war on Europe's priorities.

And for the parliament, it has become a battleground ahead of the next 2024 elections.

Green MEP Terry Reintke said the law has also become "a symbol of political games within the EPP, on which strategy they want to go forward within 2024".

EPP internal conflict

Two parliamentary committees had previously issued non-binding opinions to reject the nature restoration proposal.

"Nobody imagined that 30 years ago [when Natura 2000 was introduced] judges in the Netherlands would turn down planning applications for social housing," said EPP MEP Esther de Lange on Tuesday. "It needs an emergency brake to escape lawsuit after lawsuit. We need to go back to the drawing board."

But while EPP is calling on Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans to withdraw the proposal, the commission has previously warned lawmakers that there is no time to table a new law.

"We have to be able to accept hard limits. Accepting hard limits is part of adult policymaking," Green MEP Philippe Lambert told EUobserver. "I hope tomorrow we have more adults in the room".

The EPP vote against the proposal put forward by the EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who herself belongs to the EPP, is seen as an internal conflict within the largest political party in the parliament. But according to party chief Manfred Weber, she was simply performing her "role" as president.

Meanwhile, critics have also raised concerns over the alliance of the EPP and far-right groups to reject the law.

"The alliance between conservatives and the far-right, supported by some liberals, on this issue is extremely worrying," said climate activist Chloé Mikolajczak.

This debate, she said, goes far beyond the restoration of nature since it is a democratic issue that questions "the future of our environmental ambition".

Echoing the same message, the chair of the environment committee Pascal Canfin (Renew Europe) said that "the EPP should not get into bed with the far-right" which is undermining democracy and the spirit of compromise in Europe. "Don't let populism and fake news in".

Fate of nature restoration law punted to plenary vote

Tuesday's committee vote showed there was no majority to reject the nature restoration law — but the final vote on the report also fell short of the majority required to receive the committee approval.

Row over EPP 'blackmailing' MEPs on eve of nature vote

The centre-right European People's Party (EPP) denied any form of blackmailing — after the chair of the environment committee accused the EPP chair of threatening his own members with political retaliation if they vote for the controversial restoration law.

Double rejection for EU flagship nature restoration plan

MEPs from the agriculture and fisheries committees have voted to reject the nature restoration proposal — a key proposal that aims to halt biodiversity loss and reverse the degradation of ecosystems in the bloc.


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