Home Brussels ‘Insane’ and ‘dangerous’ to give up on EU nature law, says Belgian minister

‘Insane’ and ‘dangerous’ to give up on EU nature law, says Belgian minister

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Ignore the prime minister, Belgium is committed to getting the EU’s new nature rules approved.

That’s according to Brussels Environment and Climate Minister Alain Maron, who is responsible for steering talks among EU ministers on the highly controversial law and says he remains committed to passing the legislation despite pushback from capitals and skeptical comments from his PM.

It would be “insane” and “dangerous” to reject the legislation this late in the process, Maron told POLITICO. “What’s happening is really very problematic, both in substance and institutionally.”

EU institutions struck a deal on the new law — which sets binding targets for restoring 20 percent of the EU’s lands and seas by the end of the decade — in November. But while MEPs gave their blessing to the deal, the Belgian presidency of the Council was forced to postpone a vote among EU ministers, after several countries — including Hungary — announced they would not back the text, jeopardizing its approval.

Adding to the uncertainty, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has criticized the legislation in recent weeks, calling it a “bad law” and suggesting the EU should “go back to the drawing board” after the EU elections. He also previously advocated for a “pause” on new EU green legislation.

Opposing views on the future of the Green Deal has created tensions within Belgium’s federal coalition and disparities in how ministers approach negotiations on key EU files, such as the nature restoration law.

De Croo’s comments have also called into question Belgium’s role as an honest broker in discussions in the Council, where Maron is now attempting to find a qualified majority in favor of the nature restoration law.

“I don’t know what game the prime minister is playing, but he’s doing it without any cover from his government, to be clear,” said Maron, a member of the French-speaking Green party Ecolo that is in a coalition government with De Croo’s liberal Open VLD.

He added that attempting to backtrack from green policies is “out of touch and disconnected from reality,” and wondered aloud why De Croo would want to “torpedo his own presidency” of the Council.

Red tape scare

The Nature Restoration Regulation, a key pillar of the EU’s Green Deal, has become an electoral punching bag for conservative politicians wary of adding to farmers’ woes.

They argue the new law will burden the farming sector with new environmental rules and red tape, and even warned that it could cause food shortages across the EU — a claim that was debunked by scientists and the European Commission.

After months of tense negotiations, the EU institutions finally struck a deal in November that made a number of concessions to get skeptical countries on board, for example limiting mandatory restoration measures to protected Natura 2000 areas until 2030.

But while a narrow majority of MEPs approved that final, weakened version of the text in plenary in February, a group of countries is withholding its approval in the Council — effectively blocking the legislation from being adopted.

Among them is Hungary, which abruptly changed its position on the text ahead of a planned vote among EU environment ministers on March 25, forcing the Belgian presidency to postpone the vote.

Now, Maron is scrambling to find a way to resolve the deadlock before Hungary takes over the Council presidency on July 1. In that role, Hungary could decide to hold a vote despite not having enough countries in favor — meaning the law would officially be declared dead.

But a lot can happen between now and then, according to Maron, who argued that the result of EU election in early June and a number of local, regional and national elections happening around the same time could tilt the balance.

“Any change in context can help to change positions,” he said.

What’s not an option, however, is reopening the text for negotiations, he said, stressing that EU institutions reached a deal on the legislation and that it now has to be respected or risk damaging the credibility of the EU decision making process.

“The only reasonable option is for the text to be approved at some point,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll get there … but we have to make sure that we leave every possible chance for it to happen.”

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