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STRASBOURG — Gather round, gather round, it’s the last big match of the season.
This week, just before lawmakers head into the summer recess, the European Parliament will fight it out over nature restoration.
The EU’s proposal to rehabilitate its damaged ecosystems by 2050 has one last chance at survival in Wednesday’s plenary session. The bill, a key pillar of the bloc’s Green Deal, has limped to Strasbourg to face the full Parliament after failing to pass three committee votes.
If the Nature Restoration Law is rejected on Wednesday, “it’s game over,” said Pascal Canfin, a liberal MEP and chair of Parliament’s environment committee. “Nobody will come back with something else before the next election.”
The vote will be tight. And if the text doesn’t pass, it would be the first major Green Deal legislation to fail in Parliament — adding weight to a conservative campaign to pause environmental lawmaking ahead of the 2024 EU election.
For months, supporters and opponents of the law have been exchanging (metaphorical) punches on social media, in committee sessions and press conferences.
Ahead of the vote, POLITICO looks at the main players in the fight to kill — or save — the Nature Restoration Law.
In the blue corner: The bill’s opponents
1 — Manfred Weber
The European People’s Party has spearheaded a tireless effort to kill off the legislation, arguing that it will have detrimental consequences for the bloc’s farmers by allegedly taking land out of production and jeopardizing food security.
Its leader, Manfred Weber, has been among the most vocal opponents of the bill, seizing on the debate as a way to portray his group as defending farmers’ interests in Brussels.
Political rivals have accused him of using underhand tactics to ensure his MEPs voted against the legislation in the agriculture, fisheries and environment committees, including by substituting regular members with others ready to fall in line — allegations Weber denied. The push has also featured an often bizarre social media campaign to highlight the supposed dangers of the bill, culminating in the group claiming it would destroy Santa’s home in northern Finland.
The EPP leader maintains the group is ready to engage on the legislation — if the Commission comes up with a new version. “This is not the right moment to do this piece of legislation,” Weber said last month.
“Give me arguments, give me a better piece of legislation, then my party is ready to give,” Weber added, calling on the Commission to go back to the drawing board and insisting that achieving the EU’s climate and biodiversity goals can’t come at the expense of rural areas.
2 — Right-wing groups — and a handful of liberals
Weber’s conservative group has found allies further to the right — among MEPs belonging to the European Conservatives and Reformists and the far-right Identity and Democracy.
The ECR’s co-chair, Nicola Procaccini, a close ally of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, called the nature proposal “one of the most significant regulation proposals of the entire legislature,” and said he was “quite convinced” the right-wing alliance could defeat it. He added that it shows alliances are shifting in Parliament: “On the Green Geal it is moving more to the right.”
The EPP’s push has also found support among lawmakers in Renew Europe. About a third of the liberal group — mostly Dutch, Nordic and German MEPs — are set to vote against the bill on Wednesday, mostly out of national concerns.
Swedish liberal MEP Emma Wiesner, for example, has argued that the bill will be bad for Swedish farmers and foresters, while stressing that she still supports “an ambitious climate and environmental agenda.”
3 — Industry lobbies
A host of lobby groups have also come out against the legislation, including those representing European fishermen, foresters and farmers.
The powerful agri lobby Copa-Cogeca — which has been accused of representing the interests of large corporate outfits over smaller farms — has pushed the narrative that burdening farmers with new green obligations while they face the impacts of the war in Ukraine and higher energy prices will threaten their livelihoods.
The draft legislation “is poorly constructed, [and] has no coherent, clear or dedicated budget” to help land managers implement it, the lobby said.
Similarly, some business associations, like the Netherlands’ VNO-NCW, have been critical of the proposal, arguing that it will create a “lockdown for new business and the energy transition.”
4 — Skeptical EU countries
Several EU countries have waded into the debate, warning that the new measures would be bad for their farming and forestry sectors, as well as for people’s proprietary rights and permitting procedures for renewable energy projects.
The Netherlands has been particularly vocal against the bill, calling for EU countries to be granted more flexibility in how to achieve the regulation’s targets as it could otherwise clash with renewables or housing projects, for example. “We do have concerns about implementation because of our high population density,” said Dutch Environment Minister Christianne van der Wal-Zeggelink.
Other skeptical countries include Poland, Italy, Sweden, Finland and Belgium.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo called for hitting “pause” on new nature restoration rules amid a fierce national debate on the legislation.
In the red corner: Its defenders
1 — Frans Timmermans
The EU’s Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans has been on the front lines of the effort to save the nature rules, going toe-to-toe with EPP lawmakers during Parliament committee discussions and calling out misleading statements spread by opponents to the bill.
“Everybody is entitled to their own opinions but not to their own facts,” he told lawmakers in May, stressing that the reason harvests are failing “is linked to climate change and biodiversity loss.”
He’s repeatedly insisted the legislation is intended to help farmers in the long run, as it aims to improve soil and water quality, as well as build resilience against natural disasters like floods, droughts and wildfires. He’s also been adamant that the Commission won’t submit a new version of the bill, as demanded by the EPP.
“There is no time for that,” he explained.
2 — Left-wing groups in Parliament — and (most of) the liberals
The Parliament’s center-left Socialists & Democrats, the Greens, The Left and part of Renew Europe have been vocal advocates of the Commission’s proposal.
Biodiversity loss and climate change are two sides of the same coin, Mohammed Chahim, vice president of the S&D, told reporters. “Not connecting them is either you being naive, at best, and at worst, you really trying to undermine the Green Deal, and that’s what’s happening.”
The Renew group has been divided on the issue, but a majority backed a compromise deal ahead of Wednesday’s vote to try and convince some EPP lawmakers to switch sides and rally enough support in favor of the legislation.
3 —Teresa Ribera
Spain’s environment minister has come out in favor of the proposal, defending its importance both at home and at the EU level as a means to increase resilience to natural disasters and climate impacts like drought.
“It is very important not only to conserve but also to restore nature … There will be time to improve what we have on the table but for the time being, the best thing we can do is to achieve an agreement,” Ribera said at an informal environment ministers’ meeting Monday.
Alongside Spain, 19 EU countries supported the adoption of a common stance on the text in June.
Ribera also signaled that the file will be among the Spanish presidency of the Council’s priorities if the Parliament adopts a position allowing MEPs to start negotiations with EU countries.
4 — Big business and banks
A number of multinationals — including Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Unilever — have urged MEPs to back the legislation, arguing that restoring nature is good for business.
The new rules, they say, will boost the EU’s food production in the long term as it will help tackle pollinator decline and increase absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere, lessening climate impacts.
Owen Bethell, senior global public affairs manager for environmental impact at Nestlé, stressed that farmers’ concerns need to be addressed and argued they should receive support to adapt to the new rules. “But in the short term, I think it’s important to maintain momentum on this law because it sends the right signal, that change needs to happen,” he said.
The argument that nature is good for business also received backing from Frank Elderson, an executive board member of the European Central Bank, who warned: “Destroy nature and you destroy the economy.”
5 — Scientists and NGOs
More than 6,000 scientists have shown support for the Commission’s nature restoration plan, arguing that healthy ecosystems will store greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to the EU’s objective to become climate neutral by 2050.
“Protecting and restoring nature, and reducing the use of agrochemicals and pollutants, are essential for maintaining long-term production and enhancing food security,” they wrote.
Green activists have also led a forceful push to convince lawmakers to back the proposal, staging protests and making arguments to counter the EPP’s narrative on social media.
“The European Parliament must stay strong against the falsified pushbacks of the conservatives and take firm action to protect citizens from the devastating impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss,” the WWF said in a statement ahead of the vote.
Watching from the sidelines
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a member of the EPP, has stayed conspicuously quiet on the issue, despite mounting calls for her to get involved and help save the bill.
The situation is a Catch-22 for the German official: The nature bill is part of the Green Deal on which she staked her reputation and reelection as Commission president, but speaking in support of it would involve going against her party’s official position.
“I still expect a public reaction from her,” said the S&D’s César Luena, the lead MEP on the file. “Or if it’s not public, then a reaction inside the EPP,” he added, suggesting that her silence could be held against her in a bid for reelection next year if the legislation doesn’t pass this week.