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The EU’s ambitious plan to tackle climate change has survived a key test after the European parliament defeated an attempt by rightwing parties to veto rewilding legislation.
MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday approved the Nature Restoration Law after earlier voting against a motion to reject the fiercely contested plan, which intends to rewild a fifth of the EU’s land and sea habitats from 2030 at the latest.
The centre-right EPP group, the largest group in parliament, proposed scrapping the plan, but fell short of securing a majority after 15 of its MEPs voted against rejection, while five abstained.
The legislation is a vital part of the EU’s Green Deal, championed by Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who is herself an EPP member.
EPP leader Manfred Weber called the law’s approval an “empty win” and repeated his call for a pause on all environmental regulation to prioritise economic growth and jobs. “We can only be successful on the green deal if we unify, this is obviously not the case with this bad piece of legislation,” he added.
Weber has recently stepped up attacks in response to rising support for populist movements across Europe. He argued that the law would put some farmers out of business and prevent construction of offshore wind projects. He also wants compensation for farmers.
The law’s proposals for rewetting peatlands and protecting pollinators such as bees could lead to a loss of farmland — the original plan called for 10 per cent of farmland to be covered by hedges, trees or other plants to encourage wildlife. The EU agreed to restore its land and seas at a UN biodiversity conference in Montreal in December.
However, green campaigners noted that parliament backed a watered-down version of the law, with few binding targets.
Sabien Leemans, a biodiversity officer at the WWF campaign group, said victory “came at a high cost”. “Even with an unprecedented mobilisation to save Europe’s nature, the parliament’s position is far from what science tells us is necessary to tackle nature loss and climate change.”
Swedish activist Greta Thunberg spoke outside the parliament and businesses and scientists rallied behind the law, bombarding MEPs with requests to vote for it. César Luena, a Spanish socialist who led the legislation through parliament, thanked them for their support.
Von der Leyen, who will need EPP support if she wants a second term next year, left it to Frans Timmermans, the EU’s climate commissioner, to lead the campaign.
The left-wing Dutchman said he was willing to work with the EPP to find compromises, adding that the victory would help other Green Deal legislation, such as plans to reduce food and clothing waste, “to get across the line”.
Timmermans said the law was now a balanced proposal. “It gives member states the opportunity to allow for nature to be restored and at the same time economic activity can take place.”
The 27 member states have adopted their own position, which is also less ambitious than the original proposal.
At a meeting of EU environment ministers in Spain, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, Spanish deputy prime minister Teresa Ribera welcomed parliament’s approval of the plans.
The law had been “challenged by some who were using arguments that were not right”, she said, and “even if we have much to improve yet it is very good news”.
Timmermans will now enter talks with parliament and the council of member states to finalise the law, and said he expected to conclude negotiations within “the next couple of months”.
His message to fellow politicians, he said, was: “Let’s for once not think about the next election but about the next generation.”
Additional reporting by Alice Hancock in Valladolid