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Rogue Austrian minister burns bridges to save EU nature law

Rogue Austrian minister burns bridges to save EU nature law

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Rogue Austrian minister burns bridges to save EU nature law

LUXEMBOURG — The EU on Monday proved it can still pass a green bill. All it took was a rogue Austrian minister willing to throw away her job, get sued by her own government, and potentially tank her entire coalition.

You know, easy stuff.  

Wearing a dark green suit, Austrian Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler arrived in Luxembourg on Monday ready for a fight.

She had decided at the 11th hour that it was her duty to approve the EU’s Nature Restoration Law, a central pillar of the bloc’s efforts to reverse the major degradation of its landscapes. And she knew the decision would lead to a direct showdown with her boss, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer. 

“In 20 or 30 years, when I will talk to my two nieces and show them the beauty of our country and of this continent, and they ask me: ‘What did you do when everything was at stake?’ I want to be able to tell them: ‘I tried to support as much as I could,’” she said.

The Nature Restoration Law had once seemed destined to become law before it was yanked into the political riptide, dragging down new green policies. By Monday the bill’s head was just above water; Gewessler, a Green politician, decided she didn’t want it to drown. 

Her decision, which defied a stern letter from Nehammer claiming Gewessler couldn’t legally speak for Austria, gave the measure just enough support to pass. 

Queue the lawsuits, potential fines, dueling recriminations — and, for Gewessler, a great campaign ad.

It was a remarkable moment. For five years, officials and lawmakers have broadly worked together to erect the EU’s Green Deal. No longer: From here on, green files are all likely to see knock-down, drag-out fights. 

It felt, in many ways, like the end of an era. Or perhaps the start of a new one.

Hatching a plot 

Behind closed doors, Green ministers had been working for weeks to get the bill across the finish line. 

Last month, Irish Environment Minister Eamon Ryan, a Green Party member, spearheaded a letter with 10 other countries calling on EU governments to back the Nature Restoration Law, which requires Europe to revive 20 percent of its land and seas by 2030. 

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTION RESULTS

Updating. Based on provisional results and national estimates.


Click on a party to form a majority
Group Seats Change Seats %
European People's Party

190
+14

26.4 %
Socialists and Democrats

136
-3

18.9 %
Renew

80
-22

11.1 %
Conservatives and Reformists

76
+7

10.6 %
Identity and Democracy

58
+9

8.1 %
Greens

52
-19

7.2 %
Left

39
+2

5.4 %
Nonaligned

89
+27

12.4 %
Participation:
51.08%

(+0.42%)
Source : European Parliament
and POLITICO

Group Seats Change Seats %
European People's Party

182
0
24.2 %
Socialists and Democrats

154
0
20.5 %
Liberals and Democrats

108
0
14.4 %
Greens

74
0
9.9 %
Europe of Nations and Freedom

73
0
9.7 %
Conservatives and Reformists

62
0
8.3 %
New unaffiliated parties

57
0
7.6 %
Left

41
0
5.4 %
Participation:
50.66%

(+8%)
Source : European Parliament
and POLITICO

CHECK FULL RESULTS

Ryan had an ally in Alain Maron, environment minister for the Brussels-Capital Region and a member of Ecolo, the Belgian Francophone green party. Maron was steering talks on the measure until the end of June, when Belgium would hand the rotating EU presidency to Hungary.

Given that the European Parliament had already passed the law in February, all Maron needed was to convince enough EU capitals to sign off.

“What we’ve done is open the doors, to keep it possible and to have all the options open til the far end,” Maron said on Monday.

For days it seemed their efforts would be in vain. No one was budging, even though two countries that were abstaining due to internal coalition fights — Austria and Belgium — had environment ministers who supported the bill. All it needed to pass was for one of the two countries to flip.

In the end, Austria (or at least an Austrian government minister) came through in dramatic fashion. 

On Sunday, Gewessler called a surprise press conference to announce her decision, framing it as a vote of conscience. 

It also appeared to be a savvy political move. Gewessler was likely to lose her job soon anyway, with national elections on the horizon, and had already said she would run for parliament. What better way to launch a campaign? 

Still, she knew her decision would unleash a political firestorm — and could even land her in legal trouble. 

After Gewessler’s announcement, Nehammer wrote to Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, in a letter obtained by POLITICO, disavowing his environment minister.

Austria’s position, he said, remains to abstain on the contentious bill. Gewessler, he argued, “may not give her consent” to the legislation “as she is not entitled to commit the Republic of Austria.”

Nehammer insisted that Gewessler didn’t have the required backing from either Austria’s regional governments or its governing coalition. 

She disagreed.

The Nature Restoration Law requires Europe to revive 20 percent of its land and seas by 2030. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“The allegations made in the Federal Chancellor‘s letter … are incorrect and do not accurately reflect the Austrian legal situation,” Gewessler retorted in another letter to De Croo Sunday. “We regret that you have become involved in Austrian domestic political disputes.”

According to Austrian law, the federal regions must come up with a joint position on environmental matters. If they can’t, it’s up to the federal minister to decide. 

Until last week, the regions all opposed the bill. But at the last minute the region of Vienna changed its mind, breaking the consensus and opening the door for Gewessler to modify Austria’s position at the EU level and back the legislation.

“I know I will face opposition in Austria for this, but I’m convinced that this is the time to adopt this law,” Gewessler said before the vote on Monday. “There is extensive legal expertise that says that the binding statement of the regions in this case is no longer valid” after Vienna’s change of heart.

She noted that Austria’s agriculture minister, who hails from Nehammer’s center-right ÖVP party, had previously done exactly what she did: “Just a couple of weeks ago, [he] voted against my explicit will, for lowering environmental standards in [EU] agricultural policy.”

“We continued to work,” Gewessler added. “His action was legal, my action is legal.”

Fan the flames

Nehammer appeared incensed after the vote. 

Minutes after the legislation passed the Austrian chancellor filed a complaint at the Court of Justice of the EU, asking that the vote be annulled. He also filed a complaint against Gewessler personally, alleging she had abused the power of her office and breached the country’s constitution.

“The coalition partner has shown its true colors,” Nehammer said later in the day, referring to Gewessler and her Greens. “It is prepared to put ideology above the constitution and the law.”

Gewessler hit back, saying she was “not concerned” about the lawsuit: “I have had extensive legal advice, and have always said, if there’s a legal … way to say ‘yes’ to this law, I will do this.”

The battle over the law now moves to the courts, but it’s unclear whether Nehammer will get his way. The Council, which represents EU capitals, confirmed on Monday that the vote would hold.

Nehammer confirmed he would not dissolve his governing coalition over the matter, even if it had been strained to the breaking point.

In Luxembourg, Gewessler received crucial — and controversial — cover during the day from Maron, the Brussels region environment minister chairing the talks. 

“The vote is given by the minister around the table and in the room and there is no question about that. It’s the way it works,” he said bluntly before the vote. “For the rest, it’s an internal controversy in Austria.”

Maron’s stance did not please everyone in Belgium’s governing coalition, with some grumbling he had overstepped his authority to hold the vote when both the Flemish regional government and De Croo were against it.

Maron said simply: “It is the result of hard work, which has paid off.”

Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

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