EU countries split over nature law in latest blow to green agenda

By Thomson Reuters Mar 25, 2024 | 5:15 AM

By Kate Abnett

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union’s flagship policy to restore damaged nature is hanging in the balance, with a vote to pass the law on Monday cancelled after Hungary withdrew its support for the bill.

A vote on the law among EU countries’ environment ministers on Monday was called off after Hungary said last week it would no longer back the policy – wiping out the already-slim reinforced majority of countries in favour.

The nature law is the latest EU environmental policy to come under fire as policymakers try to respond to months of angry farmers’ protests over complaints including strict green EU regulations. The EU has already weakened numerous green rules to attempt to quell the protests.

“The agricultural sector is a very important sector, not only in Hungary, but everywhere in Europe,” Hungary’s state secretary for environment Aniko Raisz told reporters on Monday.

Raisz said Hungary was not opposed to protecting nature, but that environmental goals needed to be realistic and take into account the sectors affected.

Some EU diplomats said Hungary’s already-large protected natural areas meant the country could comply with the content of the EU nature law, and suggested Budapest’s move was a purely political one.

Dutch climate minister Rob Jetten on Monday acknowledged the increased political scrutiny of green measures ahead of the EU Parliament elections in June.

“With the upcoming European elections, it won’t be easy to get out of this position,” Jetten said of the EU nature law.

Some EU countries warned against cancelling the policy. Environment ministers were due to discuss their next steps on the law on Monday afternoon.

“We can’t give up. I urge member states to reach a breakthrough on this law,” German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke said.

Spanish climate minister Teresa Ribera said it would be a “huge irresponsibility” to reduce efforts to tackle worsening nature loss and climate change.

The law would be among the EU’s biggest environmental policies, requiring countries to introduce measures restoring nature on a fifth of their land and sea by 2030.

Its aim is to turn around the 81% of Europe’s natural habitats that are classed as in poor condition. But the policy has faced a backlash from some governments and lawmakers concerned it would impose burdensome rules on farmers, or clash with other industries.

Other countries including Italy, Poland and Sweden have opposed the law, while Belgium and Austria are set to abstain, EU officials said.

(Reporting by Kate Abnett; additional reporting by Inti Landauro, Bart Meijer, Editing by Angus MacSwan)