EU at the crossroads of the fight for the environment amid growing opposition to the law to restore nature

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union has been at the forefront of the fight against climate change and the protection of nature for years. But he now finds himself under pressure from within to suspend new environmental efforts amid fears they will hurt the economy.

With the next European Parliament elections slated for 2024, some leaders and lawmakers fear antagonizing workers and voters with tough new legislation and restrictive measures and are urging the 27-nation bloc to hold back.

Ever since Ursula von der Leyen took over as head of the powerful European Commission in 2019, environmental policies have been high on the EU agenda. EU countries have approved plans to become climate neutral by 2050 and have adopted a wide range of measures, from cutting energy consumption to drastically reducing emissions from transport and the reform of the EU’s greenhouse gas trading system.

But cracks in Europe’s united front against climate change have emerged in recent months.

The first sign came earlier this year when bloc economic giant Germany delayed a deal to ban new internal combustion engines in the EU by 2035 amid ideological divisions within the German government.

A deal was finally reached in March, but weeks later the bloc’s other power, France, called for a pause on EU environmental regulations, sparking controversy.

As he introduced a green industry bill earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was time for the EU to implement existing rules before adopting new ones.

“We have already adopted many regulations at European level, more than our neighbours,” he said. “Now we have to execute, not create new rules, because otherwise we will lose all the players.”

Macron has been particularly concerned about a US clean energy law that benefits electric vehicles and other products made in North America, fearing it could expose European companies to unfair competition. Although the Europeans and their American partners continue to work to solve the challenges posed by American law, Macron’s logic basically argues that a pause on environmental constraints would help EU companies continue to produce on their soil, despite competition from countries like China that have lower environmental standards. .

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo quickly followed suit, calling this week for a moratorium on the introduction of EU nature conservation legislation, creating a rift in the governing coalition that includes environmentalist politicians.

The law proposed by the EU executive aims, by 2030, to cover at least 20% of land and sea areas in the EU with nature restoration measures, “and possibly to extend them to all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050,” the commission said. .

De Croo said climate legislation should not be overloaded with restoration measures or limits on agricultural nitrogen pollution, warning companies would no longer be able to keep up.

“That’s why I ask that we hit the pause button,” he told VRT. “Let’s not go overboard with things that strictly speaking have nothing to do with global warming. These other issues are also important, but action to address them must be taken in stages.

Macron and De Croo have found allies in the European Parliament, where members of the largest group, the Christian Democrat EPP, have called on the European Commission to withdraw the nature restoration bill on the grounds that it would threaten agriculture and would undermine food security in Europe.

This decision came after two parliamentary committees, the Committee on Fisheries and the Committee on Agriculture, rejected the bill.

EPP lawmakers say abandoning farmland will lead to higher food prices, more imports and drive farmers out of business.

“This is an exceptional step and shows that Parliament is not ready to accept a proposal which only increases costs and insecurity for farmers, fishermen and consumers,” said Siegfried. Mureşan, Vice-President of the EPP Group responsible for the budget and structural policies. .

Growing opposition to the Nature Restoration Act has caused great concern among environmental NGOs, and Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s top climate official in charge of its Green Deal, has warned that he will not present no alternative proposal because time is running out.

“You can’t say I support the Green Deal, but not the ambition to restore nature. It’s not an a la carte menu,” Timmermans said.

The European Commission has also proposed to set legally binding targets to reduce pesticide use by 50% by 2030 and to ban all pesticide use in public parks, playgrounds and schools. To ease the transition to other pest control methods, farmers could use EU funds to cover the cost of the new requirements for five years.

“If one piece falls, the other pieces fall. I don’t see how we can maintain the Green Deal without the nature pillar, because without the nature pillar the climate pillar is not viable either,” Timmermans told EU lawmakers. “So we have to bring those two together.”

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