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A right-wing campaign to put key elements of the EU’s Green Deal on ice is gaining steam, leaving Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in an awkward position.
On Tuesday, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and its allies succeeded in blocking the EU’s landmark nature law from passing a key committee vote — part of a larger effort to press the pause button on environmental legislation.
“We are on the edge of doing too much,” German EPP lawmaker Peter Liese told reporters after the vote. “The Green Deal is a good thing, but we are about to overstretch it.”
The EPP has warned Brussels risks overburdening industry and farmers with the dozens of proposals that make up the European Green Deal. The group has fought particularly hard against legislation aimed at greening agriculture, like new rules on pesticides and land use.
The failure of the Nature Restoration Law to pass in the European Parliament’s environment committee on Tuesday — 44 members voted in favor, 44 against — marks a major victory in the EPP’s campaign.
For now, anyway.
The bill will live to fight another day — the entire Parliament is set to vote on the law next month, and majorities in plenary often differ from those in committees.
The EPP’s unified front on the bill could shatter. For Tuesday’s vote, the group chose to substitute regular committee members that were undecided or in favor of the Nature Restoration Law with firm opponents from within the group — a move it can’t pull in plenary.
The fracture may even run all the way to the top: The subject of the EPP’s ire — the expanding Green Deal, including its environmental pillar — is the very policy on which Ursula von der Leyen has staked her reputation and reelection.
The Commission president, an EPP member, has so far kept mum about this particular law, but she’s under increasing pressure to come out in support — and against her own party.
Green MEP Jutta Paulus, speaking outside the committee chamber, said von der Leyen was likely staying silent to “secure the broadest possible support” for her reelection.
“We are waiting to hear her reaction,” said Spanish center-left lawmaker César Luena, who led the environment committee’s work on the nature law. This legislation, he added, “cannot depend on a row in a political party.”
All eyes on plenary
No other Green Deal proposal has faced as fierce a backlash as the Nature Restoration Law, although other bills affecting agriculture are similarly embattled.
The legislation seeks to return the Continent’s degraded natural areas to a healthy state in an effort to fight both biodiversity decline and climate change. More than 80 percent of the EU’s habitats are currently in poor condition; the bloc’s climate targets rely partially on the ability of healthy ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide.
Speaking to the committee about disaster preparedness before Tuesday’s vote, the Commission’s crisis management chief Janez Lenarčič pleaded with MEPs to back the law.
“Yes, it is ambitious. But as commissioner for crisis management, I fear that without this ambition we face a future filled with even more disasters,” he said.
Attempts to find a compromise collapsed after the EPP walked out of negotiations and the agriculture and fisheries committees rejected the law. Several liberal and non-affiliated MEPs sided with them, splitting the 88-member environment committee down the middle.
In the first round of voting on June 15 in Strasbourg, a tied vote defeated an EPP push to reject the entire legislation, meaning the legislation would go to plenary no matter the result of the committee vote.
But that same 44-44 result on Tuesday spelled defeat for the legislation’s supporters, as it meant there was no majority in favor of the proposal.
The law’s supporters — the Socialists & Democrats, the Greens, the Left and parts of the liberal Renew Europe group — reached for a positive spin after the vote.
“In Strasbourg, we stopped them,” said lead MEP Luena. “In a way, we have already won, because we have managed for this text to continue and be discussed in plenary.”
But the press conference following the vote revealed a growing sense of hostility between groups — many of which are in campaign mode as the European election season draws closer.
EPP members interrupted lead MEP Luena — who was speaking to reporters alongside environment committee chair Pascal Canfin — and insisted he leave the press room so that the group could start its own press conference on time.
The gloves soon came off. EPP member Liese took aim at Canfin, calling him “the worst and most partisan president of an environment committee I’ve ever experienced.”
Canfin had accused EPP leader Manfred Weber, a vocal opponent of the law, of “manipulation” after the group decided to substitute several regular committee members — at least seven out of 22 by POLITICO’s count — to ensure all of its MEPs voted against the proposal.
Czech EPP lawmaker Stanislav Polčák, who had previously signaled support for the law, was among those who were replaced. A single vote could have broken the tie.
Liese objected to Canfin’s claims, saying no MEP was forced to give up their vote.
“Within the EPP, I think, there is a clear battle,” Canfin said at the press conference. “Between the line that is embodied by Weber and the line that is embodied by Ursula von der Leyen.”
Liese denied that there was any sort of split with the Commission president.
They pinned the blame for the “bad law” on Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, a center-left politician, and called on him to “withdraw” the proposal. Timmermans has said he is open to further negotiations on the law, but ruled out a complete redraft.
A plenary vote has been tentatively scheduled for July 11. Groups will try to find compromise on possible changes, but the EPP will also have another chance to reject the entire law. While some conservatives might vote in favor, the entire Parliament skews more conservative on climate action than the environment committee.
The Nature Restoration Law’s backers are now looking to the Berlaymont for support. Luena, issuing a “solemn appeal” to von der Leyen, emphasized that her reelection depended not only on the EPP but on a wider majority.
“My group supported her to become president with a key policy: The European Green Deal,” he said. “Now her political family are moving away from that deal and she hasn’t said anything. Before the Strasbourg plenary, Ms. von der Leyen should react.”