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Hope for EU’s Nature Law Despite Political Obstacles 

June resolution mooted after EU Council members struggle to reach agreement on Nature Restoration Law.  

The future of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law (NRL) remains in limbo after the Prime Minister of Belgium, which currently has presidency of the EU Council, reportedly said that the law is “bad” and needs to “go back to the drawing board”.  

His comments follow the failure of EU countries to ratify the NRL at an EU Council meeting on 25 March after eight member states, including Hungary and Italy, withdrew support for the legislation.  

However, non-governmental organisations focused on environmental protection believe there is scope for the legislation to be agreed before Belgium’s presidency terminates at the end of June.  

Proposed by the European Commission in 2022, the NRL directs member states to restore at least 30% of natural habitats such as forests, rivers and coral beds to a good condition by 2030, increasing to 60% by 2040, and 90% by 2050.   

Member states must also put in place measures to achieve a “positive trend in several indicators in forest ecosystems”, as well as planting an additional three billion trees across the bloc and restoring 25,000km of rivers. 

Environmental NGOs from the #RestoreNature coalition reacted with incredulity after EU member states failed to achieve the necessary qualified majority to adopt NRL, saying the law “had been held hostage by last-minute political manoeuvres”.  

Špela Bandelj Ruiz, Biodiversity Campaigner at Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe, said: “Nature across Europe is heavily degraded, leaving us vulnerable to droughts and heatwaves, and seriously compromising the water and soil. Governments torpedoing the first tiny steps towards restoring European nature is a disgrace. They are playing with the lives of future generations, and the livelihoods of the farmers they claim to protect. With no nature, there is no food and no future.” 

According to Birdlife International, failing to pass NRL will leave the EU unable to meet its commitments and obligations under the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in 2022. 

Hanging in the balance

After Sweden, Poland, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Italy said they would abstain or oppose NRL, the fate of the law hung in the balance with a wafer-thin majority that was lost when Hungary said it would oppose the law too. 

To reach an agreement 55% of member states, accounting for 65% of the population, must agree.  

“We condemn all member states who are not supporting the law – at best, it suggests a deep failure to understand the situation we are in and what it means for the rights of citizens,” said the #RestoreNature coalition, consisting of BirdLife Europe, ClientEarth, the European Environmental Bureau and WWF EU.  

“Allowing Viktor Orbán [Hungarian leader] to sabotage the NRL flies in the face of science, citizens’ concerns, the European Parliament’s support, and corporate backing for the law. It is completely incomprehensible and appalling to see the NRL being sacrificed on the altar of populist anti-green sentiment, devoid of any rational explanation, and undermining the democratic decision-making process.” 

Speaking to ESG Investor, Sabien Leemans, Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer at WWF EU, said the Belgian Presidency had communicated they want to put the vote back on the table before the end of its presidency and mentioned the 17 June as a possible date, “but in theory it could be any council meeting between now and end of June,” she said.  

She added: “The fact that this is after the EU elections does not really play a role, as it is only the EU Council’s formal adoption that is missing in the process to adopt the NRL in first reading.” 

But any large changes to the NRL text by the EU Council mean the legislation would have to go back to the European Parliament whose last session before the EU elections is at the end of April.  

“For the moment, there are no signs that the file would be going into second reading but of course if the blocking remains, at some point the Presidency will need to start looking into this, so we cannot completely exclude it. We are however hopeful that a solution will be found to get the file through council as it is,” said Leemans. 

Political positioning  

A similar story unfolded with the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) which faced delays after the EU Council initially struggled to build a majority despite reaching a provisional agreement with the European Parliament in December. The law was finally approved by the EU Council after several concessions.  

Ioannis Agapakis, an International and European Environmental Lawyer at ClientEarth, told ESG investor that while there were reasonable justifications in defending corporate interests with the CSDDD, member states’ concerns were more political and macroeconomic with NRL. 

“I personally think that it is very much a politically-motivated change that reflects the restrictions on EU funding imposed by the EU on Hungary for other reasons. Hungary is not proven to be a reliable partner in the EU Council’s decision making and in the EU Council’s lawmaking function, because it has supported the law for more than one year and a half. They were never against the law per se….their rationale seems politically motivated and kind of abusive negotiating.” 

However, Agapakis was hopeful a resolution would be found, noting that just one member state had to change its mind for the NRL to be approved by the EU Council.  

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