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Von der Leyen is campaigning hard — against the wolf

Von der Leyen is campaigning hard — against the wolf

by host
Von der Leyen is campaigning hard — against the wolf

Ever since her beloved pony Dolly was killed by wolf GW950m in Germany’s Lower Saxony in September 2022, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has focused on downgrading the protection status of the large carnivore.

But the strength of her relentless personal crusade — which has translated into political lobbying at the highest level — is raising eyebrows among EU diplomats in Brussels. They describe her focus on the Big Bad Wolf as “strange,” “bizarre,” “puzzling,” and definitely “pushy.”

“[The protection of the wolf] is not a so very important question and yet von der Leyen is making it a key political issue,” one EU country diplomat granted anonymity to speak candidly told POLITICO. “The political attention and the reasons behind it are a bit over the top.”

At stake is whether the wolf’s protection status should be reduced from “strictly protected” to “protected,” allowing the animals to be killed more easily if they threaten livestock.

On the surface that’s a technical issue that should be thrashed out by national experts in working groups in the Council of the EU. But at its heart, it’s highly political — von der Leyen’s center-right European People’s Party wants to style itself as the defender of the farmer — and it’s also very personal.

A few weeks after Dolly’s death, von der Leyen called for an “in-depth analysis” into the wolf menace by the European Commission. A year later — in December 2023 — a proposal was on the desks of European countries to effectively downgrade the protection status of the animal. And von der Leyen hasn’t taken the pressure off.

“The president of the European Commission is lobbying to rush a decision” on this topic, said a national expert aware of the talks who was granted anonymity to speak about closed-door lupine discussions. “It’s been very disruptive.”

The expert explained that there was pressure to have EU ambassadors give political guidance on the file in March, before actual technical work started. This was a “peculiar” move for a file about the protection status of a species, said a diplomat from a second EU country.

Both above-quoted diplomats, plus another from a third EU country, told POLITICO that pressure has been high to get a deal on the file done quickly.

On several occasions, von der Leyen has also brought up the issue personally with Alexander De Croo, prime minister of Belgium, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency and is in charge of overseeing the file’s progress in the Council.

European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said that’s entirely normal.

“The president of the Commission is in regular contact with the Belgian PM in his function as Presidency of the Council. In that context, they discuss among other topics the progress of Commission proposals that are being debated by the co-legislators in order to discuss possible landing zones,” Mamer said. “The President has thus discussed many files with PM De Croo … and the protection status of wolves was just one further file in this context.”

Two of the EU diplomats acknowledged that it’s not unusual for the Commission to work behind closed doors and defend a proposal tooth and nail to get it over the line.

“It’s fair game,” said the first diplomat. “The Commission can be forceful. “

Downgrade

The Commission’s proposal downgrades the wolf’s protection status from “strictly protected” to “protected” citing “new data on increased populations and impacts.”

“The concentration of wolf packs in some European regions has become a real danger especially for livestock,” said von der Leyen when the proposal was published.

According to the Commission’s own estimates, there are about 20,000 wolves in Europe and 0.06 percent of farmers’ sheep fall victim to them every year.

If approved, the proposal will give national authorities more flexibility to grant derogations to kill problematic wolves — for example when they threaten farmers’ livestock — but countries will still be required to ensure the animal remains in a good conservation state.

Environmentalists criticize that the conservation of the wolf is being used for political gain.

Sabien Leemans, a senior biodiversity policy officer with the World Wildlife Fund’s EU policy office in Brussels, said “the wolf is not in favorable conservation status in most of the bio-geographical regions in Europe” and denounced a “politically motivated move” from von der Leyen, who is putting herself forward for a second stint as the head of the European Commission.

The wolf is a key issue in some rural constituencies in countries like Germany, Austria, Finland, Spain, France or Romania. By proposing to relax EU rules to take down wolves, von der Leyen is championing a policy that will sit well with farmers, a key constituency that’s been targeted by her political family, the center-right European People’s Party, during the European election campaign.

But Leemans says it’s the wrong solution. “By allowing to hunt wolves, you don’t solve the problem of livestock being killed, this can only be solved by implementing preventive measures,” she said, adding that the wolf is being used as “a political scapegoat for … the problems that farmers are facing, which are genuine.”

In the Council, EU governments are extremely divided on this topic, with agriculture ministers largely in favor of downgrading the protection of the wolf, while environment ministers caution against it, citing concerns over the animal’s long-term conservation.

A fourth diplomat, from a country that supports the Commission’s proposal to downgrade the wolf’s protection status, said they’d like “to see this done” but acknowledged there is currently “no clear majority either way.”

From the other side of the table, there’s no rush. “We don’t really see the point of doing this at this moment,” said a fifth diplomat, this one from a country who opposes the proposal. “We feel a lot of information is still needed to proceed with this [file] and make an informed decision.”

In late May, Austria’s Agriculture Minister Norbert Totschnig, who is a member of the center-right Austrian People’s Party and belongs to the same political family as von der Leyen, called again on the Belgian presidency to “rapidly finalize discussions on the protection status of wolves to provide the necessary flexibility” to farmers.

But Belgium is resisting the pressure.

“We received feedback from a number of member states asking for more scientific data. Some countries said that the topic isn’t yet mature enough to have a vote on it, others underlined the need for more flexibility,” said a person working in the Belgian presidency. “So, we concluded that we needed to keep working on it,” they added.

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