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14th Apr 2024

Opinion

Is EU nature restoration law at risk of becoming a lame duck?

  • With the EU elections just around the corner, decision-makers would do wisely to deliver on their green commitments (Photo: Coline Balfroid)
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Brussels and the EU institutions with which it has become synonymous is often dismissed as a bureaucratic blackhole. But nothing captured public attention at the beginning of the summer like the political pantomime around the EU Nature Restoration Law (NRL).

With political bigwigs including French president Emmanuel Macron wading into the debate, it was with an intense sense of relief that those of us supporting binding rules to restore nature and biodiversity saw the European Parliament finally support the law in a crunch vote in Strasbourg.

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  • Member states failed for years to protect harbour porpoise in the Baltic (Photo: Seas At Risk)

This may all feel like a distant memory, but the NRL is far from a done deal — and this ongoing final stage of negotiations is where it faces the highest danger of being reduced from groundbreaking law to lame duck.

Right now, the parliament, European Commission, and member states are deep in talks on the ins and outs of the law.

While the text adopted by the parliament in July was far from perfect — for example, it removed the obligation to conserve what is restored, a no-brainer for anyone that has ever done home gardening — it included one game changing section critical to making restoration efforts work at sea.

The parliament's position is that countries must find joint solutions when there is a conflict between marine restoration and harmful fishing like bottom trawling. This is perfectly logical, and the option to do this already exists in the Common Fisheries Policy.

The problem? Member states ignore it. The result? A huge mismatch between commitments to protect marine ecosystems on paper, and what happens in practice.

Marine wildlife including common dolphins, seabirds, and commercially exploited fish are the victims of this optional approach to managing the impacts of the EU's powerful fishing industry.

Despite 30-year-old EU obligations to protect and restore certain marine life and ecosystems, member states have so far vastly failed to curb the destructive impact of fishing.

Bye bye porpoises?

For example, it was only when the commission stepped in with mandatory temporary measures, after member states failed for years to protect harbour porpoise in the Baltic, that member states put in place conservation measures to save this critically endangered sea mammal from extinction.

An opt-in approach to nature restoration clearly does not work. Destructive fishing, including bottom trawling, affects 86 percent of the seabed area that EU countries identified for protection.

In some cases, bottom trawling intensity is higher inside so-called protected areas than outside. This is why solutions like the ones put forward by the parliament, requiring member states to introduce timely restrictions on destructive fishing — and giving the commission power to take emergency action if they fail to do so — are essential if the NRL is to be more than an empty shell.

Global reliance on a healthy ocean cannot be overstated. It gives us half of the oxygen we breathe, provides the weather systems on which agriculture so desperately depends, and stabilises the climate by absorbing 25 percent of CO2 and buffering against extreme climate change. An NRL that makes marine restoration possible is not just common sense — it is a necessity.

But now the law is in closed door interinstitutional negotiations, whose secrecy is infamous, and the threat to the NRL is greater now that its biggest defender — Frans Timmermans — has left Brussels for domestic politics. From the commission's side, it falls to Virginijus Sinkevičius, commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, to get the executive's green and blue promises over the line.

Attention has also turned to the more moderate and climate-conscious involved in the talks: parliament rapporteur César Luena, environment committee chair Pascal Canfin and his liberal Renew Europe group, and national ministers who profile themselves as pro-nature, such as France's Christophe Béchu and Spain's Teresa Ribera, who has the added pressure of being in the council driving seat until the end of the Spanish presidency.

The announcement of the European Green Deal (which includes the NRL) in December 2019 was a turning point and a promise of a sustainable and just future for Europe.

Since then, from the pandemic pushing social and economic structures to the brink, to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing crisis, occurrences that seemingly have little environmental or climate angle were used as excuses to hit the brakes on nature restoration.

Fortunately, thanks to scientists, businesses, and citizens speaking up in droves to fight the right and far-right's hysteria about food security and Father Christmas, facts won over fiction when it came to the parliament vote.

Recent surveys find that nearly three-quarters of Europeans think the cost of not tackling climate change will be much higher than that of investing in a fair green transition, and nearly one-third expect the parliament to take action against climate change. With the EU elections just around the corner, decision-makers would do wisely to deliver on their green commitments.

Author bio

Dr Monica Verbeek is executive director of Seas At Risk. Vera Coelho is deputy vice-president of Oceana Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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