12th Apr 2024

Doubt and anger greet last-minute backtracking on EU biodiversity law

  • 'The destruction of nature is life-threatening; this is not the time to press the pause button,' said Belgian environment minister Zhakia Khattabi (Photo: James Baltz/Unsplash)
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The EU's nature restoration law, which aims to restore at least 20 percent of its land and sea by the end of the decade, is on life support.

Last week, several member states, including the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, and Hungary, withdrew their support for the legislation.

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EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius warned on Monday (25 March) that the move "raised serious questions about the credibility of our institutions."

He pointed out that "member states already agreed on a legislative proposal in November" and then negotiated it in trilogue with the EU Parliament and the EU commission.

"It was a huge amount of work to get this across the finish line," he said, pointing to over two years of legislative work. "We had a fine deal."

The agreement that emerges from these trilogues — and which was accepted in parliament at the end of February — is traditionally final, with no further changes after this point.

But legislators in Brussels have sounded the alarm, as member states have repeatedly changed their minds at the last minute over the past year.

What was initially intended as a formal sign-off has now turned into the latest piece of green legislation to become entangled in the council at the final moment, following the EU ban on combustion engines last year and the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) regulation in February.

"It is becoming rather customary that this happens in the council," said Spanish environment minister Teresa Ribera. "I'm very concerned."

"I can't get my head around it that we would let this initiative drop this late in the game," she added.

"We're undermining the entire European legislative process," said Irish transport minister Eamon Ryan in a similar vein. "We entered negotiations, we agreed with parliament and the commission, but now we change our minds?"

"We can't retreat on the Nature Restoration Law. To retreat now would be disastrous for nature and disastrous for public confidence in our European institutions," he added.

Belgium to the rescue?

EU members are now looking at Belgium to fix things.

However, the Belgian prime minister, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency and is responsible for trying to get the law unstuck in the council, said last May that it was time to "hit the pause button" on the EU's nature restoration law.

At the time, his climate minister, Zhakia Khattabi, was among those criticising him, and his commitment to the file was again questioned on Monday.

"If we allow this to be scuppered, we go into the elections where we admit the EU system doesn't work," said Ryan. "The destruction of nature is life-threatening; this is not the time to press the pause button. It would be a disgrace."

Khattabi, a member of the French-speaking Ecolo (Greens/EFA) party, said on Monday that De Croo had spoken on his own account and did not "speak in the name of Belgium."

"I hope the Belgian presidency will be able to contribute," said Spain's Ribera.

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