EU nature law on knife-edge after losing first vote

In this file photo dated Sept 23, 2021, a bee arrives at a sunflower under blue sky in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. (PHOTO / AP)

BRUSSELS – A European Union parliament committee on Tuesday rejected a landmark legal proposal to protect endangered natural habitats, ahead of a decisive vote by the full EU assembly next month.

The bill to revive ailing environments – which aims to restore nature on 20 percent of EU land and sea – is facing a backlash from the parliament's largest faction, the conservative European People's Party, which has called for its rejection.

The EPP's opposition to the proposal drafted by the European Commission has centered on concerns that the law would damage the livelihoods of farmers and endanger food security – assertions that thousands of scientists have rejected.

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In a tight committee vote, 44 lawmakers backed the law and 44 opposed it, meaning it failed to win majority support. The bill faces a full parliamentary vote on July 11, where failure to garner a majority would kill off the proposal.

Despite that, EU countries agreed a position on the nature bill last week – weakening some targets and seeking more EU money to support farmers in restoring nature, but supporting the measure's overall objectives

"We are already on the edge of doing too much. The Green Deal is a good thing, but we are about to overstretch it," EPP lawmaker Peter Liese said, referring to the EU's overall package of policies to tackle climate change.

Other lawmakers defended the bill, which Brussels says is crucial to reversing the decline of Europe's natural habitats, 81 percent of which are classed as being in poor health.

"We're ensuring food security and the undeniable improvement of nature for the benefit of farmers, livestock raisers and fishermen," said Cesar Luena, parliament's lead negotiator on the law.

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The political clash comes ahead of EU parliament elections next year – with some lawmakers accusing the EPP of blocking the law to court votes, which the group has denied.

Supporters from other parliamentary groups said they would try to club together to find a compromise deal ahead of next month's vote. Officials in the parliament said they expect a close vote.

The law has also faced criticism from governments including Ireland and Belgium, with the latter warning that the EU is saddling industries with too much regulation.

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Despite that, EU countries agreed a position on the nature bill last week – weakening some targets and seeking more EU money to support farmers in restoring nature, but supporting the measure's overall objectives.