Mixed reaction to approval of Europe’s nature restoration law

European environment ministers approved the Nature Restoration Law on Monday, after Austria’s changed position ensured the required majority among member states. The decision brought mixed reactions from politicians, farmers and environmental groups.

The law, part of the European Green Deal, is intended to slow down and restore the deterioration of Europe’s nature. By 2030, restoration measures must be introduced in at least 20 per cent of all land and sea areas in Europe. By 2050, this should be extended to all ecosystems where restoration is needed. Member states will have to adhere to detailed targets for each of the habitat types.

Negotiators from the European Parliament and the Council reached a political agreement on the law in 2023. Despite attempts by the European People’s Party to overturn the agreement, it was given the green light by Parliament in spring. 

Qualified majority required

The subsequent approval by member states should have been a formality but turned out to be much more difficult than expected. Opposition from Hungary and the Netherlands meant the required qualified majority was no longer available. At least 15 of the 27 member states, representing 65 per cent or more of the European population, were required to vote in favour. 

The vote by Austria’s Environment minister, Leonore Gewessler, on Monday made the difference, with 20 member states voting in favour and six against. Since the Flemish government is against the law, Belgium had to abstain. 

Bruno Tobback, recently elected to the European Parliament for Flemish socialists Vooruit, says it is now up to member states to put the law into practice, a task that in Belgium is mainly devolved to the regions.

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“We are counting on the Flemish government to work constructively on the basis of this legislation,” he said. Vooruit is in talks with N-VA and CD&V to form the new regional executive. 

“The sooner Flanders defines a clear and comprehensive plan, the sooner there will be clarity for all concerned,” he said, adding that the text offers sufficient flexibility to take account of “varied social, economic and cultural needs, regional and local characteristics and population density”. 

"The sooner Flanders defines a clear and comprehensive plan, the sooner there will be clarity for all concerned"

Jo Brouns of CD&V, the outgoing Flemish Agriculture minister, said on X that Flanders "could not support" the act, "because there was too much uncertainty about the consequences for a densely populated region like ours ... If Austria's vote turns out to be valid, we in Flanders will have to do everything we can to prioritise legal certainty and feasibility in the Flemish translation."

Flanders’ green party, Groen, called the decision a major victory for nature, climate and the economy. Co-leader Jeremie Vaneeckhout called on the parties preparing the new governments in Belgium to take the law into account. “Nature and climate policy should be anchored in any coalition agreement,” he said. Groen’s francophone counterpart, Ecolo, described it as a “victory for nature” and a “success for the Belgian presidency”. 

Economic damage

Meanwhile, the farmers’ union Boerenbond called it “another example of ill-considered policy”. 

“The Nature Restoration Law imposes additional goals to promote biodiversity and protect nature without examining the economic impact of this on agriculture and other economic sectors,” president Lode Ceyssens said. He now calls on policymakers to draw up nature restoration plans in consultation with civil society, "to avoid as much economic damage as possible".

Monday’s meeting was chaired by Brussels minister Alain Maron, of Ecolo, on behalf of the Belgian EU presidency. Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer, of the conservative ÖVP, wrote to Belgium’s Alexander De Croo on Sunday arguing that Gewessler was not entitled to give her approval because there is no consensus in Austria. After the vote, he announced he would appeal to the European Court of Justice. ​ 

The regulation will be published in the EU’s Official Journal, to come into force 20 days later.


#FlandersNewsService | A protest by Belgian agricultural association Boerenbond and European agricultural organisation Copa-Cogeca against the nature restoration law, near the EU headquarters, in Brussels, 1 June 2023 © BELGA PHOTO HATIM KAGHAT

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