BRUSSELS – The European Union has been at the forefront of the fight against climate change and the protection of nature for years. But it now finds itself under pressure from within to pause new environmental efforts amid fears they will hurt the economy.
With the next European Parliament elections set for 2024, some leaders and lawmakers are concerned about antagonizing workers and voters with new binding legislation and restrictive measures and are urging the 27-nation bloc to hit the brakes.
Since Ursula von der Leyen took the helm of the powerful European Commission back in 2019, environmental policies have topped the EU agenda. EU nations have endorsed plans to become climate neutral by 2050 and adopted a wide range of measures, from reducing energy consumption to sharply cutting transport emissions and reforming the EU’s trading system for greenhouse gases.
But cracks in the European united front against climate change have emerged in recent months.
The first sign was earlier this year when Germany, the bloc's economic giant, delayed a deal to ban new internal combustion engines in the EU by 2035 amid ideological divisions inside the German government.
An agreement was finally reached in March, but just weeks later, the bloc's other powerhouse, France, called for a pause on EU environmental regulation, causing controversy.
As he presented a bill on green industry earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron said it was time for the EU to implement existing rules before adopting new ones.
“We have already passed a lot of regulations at European level, more than our neighbors," he said. “Now we have to execute, not make new rules, because otherwise we will lose all players.”
Macron has been particularly concerned by a U.S. clean energy law that benefits electric vehicles and other products made in North America, fearing it will expose European companies to unfair competition. Although Europeans and their American partners keep working to resolve the challenges posed by the U.S. law, Macron's logic basically holds that a pause on environmental constraints would help EU businesses keep producing on home soil, despite competition from countries such as China that have lower environmental standards.
Belgian Prime minister Alexander De Croo quickly followed suit, calling this week for a moratorium on the introduction of EU legislation aimed at nature preservation, creating a rift within the governing coalition including green politicians.
The law proposed by the EU's executive arm aims, by 2030, to cover at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas with nature restoration measures, "and eventually extend these to all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050,” the commission said.
De Croo said that climate legislation should not be overloaded with restoration measures or limits on agricultural nitrogen pollution, warning that businesses would no longer be able to keep up.
“That’s why I’m asking that we press the pause button," he told VRT network. "Let’s not go too far with things that, strictly speaking, have nothing to do with global warming. These other issues are important too, but measures to address them must be taken in phases.”
Macron and De Croo have found allies at the European Parliament, where members of the biggest group, the Christian Democrat EPP, have asked the European Commission to withdraw the nature restoration law proposal on grounds that it will threaten agriculture and undermine food security in Europe.
The move came after two parliamentary committees, the Fisheries Committee and the Agriculture Committee, rejected the planned legislation.
EPP lawmakers claim that abandoning farmland will lead to an increase in food prices, more imports and drive farmers out of businesses.
“This is an exceptional step and shows that the Parliament is not ready to accept a proposal that only increases costs and insecurity for farmers, fishers and consumers,” said Siegfried Mureşan, the vice-chairman of the EPP Group responsible for budget and structural policies.
The growing opposition to the nature restoration law has caused great concern among environmental NGOs, and Frans Timmermans, the EU Commission's top climate official in charge of its Green Deal, warned he would not put forward an alternative proposal because there isn't time.
“You can’t say I support the Green Deal, but not the ambition to restore nature. It’s not ‘à la carte menu,'” Timmermans said.
The EU commission has also proposed setting legally binding targets to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% by 2030 and a ban on all pesticide use in public parks, playgrounds and schools. To ease the transition to alternative pest control methods, farmers would be able to use EU funds to cover the cost of the new requirements for five years.
“If one piece falls, the other pieces fall. I don’t see how we can maintain the Green Deal without the nature pillar, because without the nature pillar, the climate pillar is also not viable,” Timmermans told EU lawmakers. “So we need to get these two together.”