EU Faces Vote on Measure to Protect Nature

Supporters rallied outside the bloc's parliament building — while some farmers staged a protest.

German farmers supporting the EU's Green Deal bill demonstrate outside the European Parliament, Strasbourg, July 11, 2023.
German farmers supporting the EU's Green Deal bill demonstrate outside the European Parliament, Strasbourg, July 11, 2023.
AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

BRUSSELS (AP) — Protesters and legislators converged on the European Union parliament Tuesday as the bloc prepared a cliffhanger vote on protecting its threatened nature and shielding it from disruptive environmental change, in a test of the EU's global climate credentials.

Spurred on by climate activist Greta Thunberg, a few hundred demonstrators demanded that the EU pushes through a bill to beef up the restoration of nature in the 27-nation bloc that was damaged during decades of industrial expansion. A counterdemonstration of farmers demanded a slower approach that would lessen the impact on their income.

Inside the legislature in Strasbourg, France, parliamentarians put in last-minute efforts to sway Wednesday's vote, which could push a key part of the EU's biodiversity protection plans off the table. The legislature's environment committee last month was deadlocked at 44-44 on it.

The bill is a key part of the EU's vaunted European Green Deal that seeks to establish the world's most ambitious climate and biodiversity targets and make the bloc the global point of reference on all climate issues. The plans proposed by the EU's executive commission set binding restoration targets for specific habitats and species, with the aim by 2030 to cover at least 20% of the region's land and sea areas.

"This is really a crunch moment, not only for Green Deal, but also whether Europe stands by its word," said Greens leader Terry Reintke. "Are we the ones that are talking and telling us what to do but not doing it ourselves?"

The EU's executive commission wants the nature restoration law to be a key part of the system since it is necessary for the overall deal to have the maximum impact. Others say that if the EU fails on the nature restoration law, it would indicate an overall fatigue on climate issues.

The bill long looked like a shoo-in as it gathered widespread support in member nations and was staunchly defended by the EU's executive commission and its president Ursula von der Leyen.

But von der Leyen's own political group, the Christian Democrat European People's Party, turned sour on it and now vehemently opposes it, claiming it will affect food security and undermine the income of farmers and disgruntle a European population focused more on jobs and their wallets. Like some nations and leaders, they want to hit pause such far-reaching climate legislation.

"For the next five years we have to care a lot about our industrial base. You have to care a lot about competitiveness in the European Union. So we have to manage the big changes needed in a way that we don't lose economic power," said EPP chief Manfred Weber.

As the largest group, with 177 seats in the 705-seat legislature, its opposition has been key in turning the issue into a hot political debate. And on Tuesday few ventured to predict which way the vote would go.

The member states have already agreed by a large majority to back a slightly more flexible version of the bill. If parliament backs the plan on Wednesday both institutions would sit down to broker a final layout in the second half of the year.

The commission has said there is no reason to reject the plan now as too rigid, since there is still time for compromises on many of the issues.

EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius said the commission would show "openness to revisit and improve certain provisions and to enhance clarity, making sure the proposal reflects the current reality."

If parliament rejects the plan Wednesday, it would be sent back to the drawing board and it's unlikely anything would emerge ahead of the June EU parliament elections next year. And that would undermine the EU's credibility abroad since it has put so much into its vaunted Green Deal.

"This law is nothing less than the flagship initiative of the European Green Deal," Sinkevicius said.

The Green Deal includes a wide range of measures, from reducing energy consumption to sharply cutting transportation emissions and reforming the EU's trading system for greenhouse gases.

Beyond environmental protesters, hundreds of international scientists and even a large group of multinationals have called for the adoption of the EU's nature restoration law.

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