Countries back contested EU nature law, seek more funding

In this file photo dated Nov 14, 2022, a man takes a walk on a sunny autumn day the Tegel forest in Berlin. (PHOTO / AFP)

LUXEMBOURG – European Union countries' environment ministers struck a deal on Tuesday over a landmark bill to restore deteriorating natural habitats after watering down parts of the proposal and agreeing to find more EU funding to restore damaged environments.

The EU proposal to turn around the ailing health of Europe's natural habitats – 81 percent of which are classed as in poor condition – has sparked a fierce political debate, with EU lawmakers and some governments opposing the bill and questioning whether the EU is piling too much environmental regulation onto industry.

EU countries backed the bill but only after the European Commission, the bloc's executive, agreed to propose EU financial support for measures to revive nature, if it were found to be needed.

Hungary, Italy and Romania were among the countries seeking increased support, while Germany had opposed the creation of a new EU fund.

EU countries backed the bill but only after the European Commission, the bloc's executive, agreed to propose EU financial support for measures to revive nature, if it were found to be needed

Countries weakened parts of the Commission's original proposal.

One change would scrap an obligation to ensure that the health of mudflats, grasslands, forests and other habitats does not worsen, replacing it with an aim to "endeavour to put in place necessary measures" to prevent this.

Another would weaken targets to revive drained peatlands at the request of countries including Ireland, where dried bogs are farmed upon and peat used as fuel.

ALSO READ:EU blasts Brazil climate pledge for not going far enough

Irish climate minister Eamon Ryan welcomed the compromise, saying it gave hope that "the destruction of nature is not an inevitable certainty", while avoiding restrictions that would prevent countries from developing their economies.

This file photo taken in Brussels on Dec 16, 2020 shows European Union flags fluttering in the wind outside the European Commission building. (PHOTO / AFP)

Still, the densely-populated Netherlands opposed the deal, having raised concerns it would slow the expansion of wind farms and other economic activities. Finland, Italy, Poland and Sweden also opposed it.

"We can't do everything at the same time and in the same limited space," Dutch Nature Minister Christianne van der Wal said.

EU climate chief Frans Timmermans told reporters he was not worried by countries' tweaks to make the law more flexible. But he criticized lawmakers in the European Parliament who are trying to block the law and are refusing to negotiate

Political pushback

EU climate chief Frans Timmermans told reporters he was not worried by countries' tweaks to make the law more flexible. But he criticized lawmakers in the European Parliament who are trying to block the law and are refusing to negotiate.

EU countries and the European Parliament must both approve the final bill.

"It makes me really sad that some are trying to draw climate policy to the culture wars. Because then you create sort of a tribal opposition. And once you get into a tribal opposition, facts don't matter," Timmermans said.

READ MORE:EU bans hazardous plastic waste exports to non-OECD countries

The EU Parliament's biggest lawmaker group is leading a campaign to reject the law, arguing that making more space for biodiversity-boosting features on agricultural land would threaten food production.

More than 3,000 scientists have rejected those claims, but the law's future still looks shaky. A motion by EU lawmakers to reject the entire proposal last week failed by a razor-thin margin, ahead of a full EU Parliament vote in July.