The gloves were definitely off during a debate in the European Parliament about the contentious Nature Restoration Law.
Conservatives and progressives were pitted against each other, trading a variety of accusations and reproaches that vividly exposed the profound political chasm that has effectively split the hemicycle in two.
At the core of the dispute is the Nature Restoration Law, a draft piece of legislation that aims to rehabilitate Europe’s degraded ecosystems and bring back lost species. The regulation establishes legally-binding targets in seven fields of action, including farmlands, peatlands, pollinators and sea bottoms, with the ultimate goal of reversing the biodiversity loss caused by unchecked human activity and climate change.
But the law, as designed by the European Commission, has become the target of enormous criticism by right-wing parties, particularly by the European People’s Party (EPP), the parliament’s largest group, which has for weeks led a relentless opposition campaign to bring down the legislation in its entirety.
The Nature Restoration Law faces a make-or-break moment on Wednesday when the hemicycle is due to take a vote on the full text, following the negative assessments made by three different committees.
Ahead of the crucial occasion, MEPs had a chance to discuss face-to-face the content of the proposed legislation. But Tuesday’s debate quickly turned into a dizzying succession of political recriminations, finger-pointing, ridicule and interruptions that stretched for over two hours and a half.
Conservative groups, with the EPP at the front, attacked the Nature Restoration Law, saying its obligations to improve the health of agricultural lands would threaten the livelihoods of European farmers, disrupt supply chains, decrease food production and push prices up for consumers – claims that have been widely contested by NGOs, climate scientists, the renewable industry and the private sector.
“The proposal by the (European) Commission goes directly in the wrong direction,” said Christine Schneider, an EPP member from Germany.
“Protecting biodiversity can only go hand in hand with the population, not by forcing rules on the foresters, the farmers, and making them responsible for the disappearance of biodiversity, not by removing arable farmland and endangering food production, not by pitting the environment against agriculture.”
Eurosceptic lawmakers went even further, raising the prospect of expropriated private property, growing unemployment and abandoned rural areas, on top of their customary allegations of democratic blackmail and violation of national sovereignty.
“While we face an imminent food crisis, you chase utopian pipe dreams. You’re sacrificing our farmers on the altar of your ecological ideology,” said Aurélia Beigneux, a French MEP with the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group.
Left-wing parties took turns defending the Nature Restoration Law, portraying it as an essential piece to ensure the long-term viability of European soils and build buffers against the most damaging effects of the climate crisis.
Progressives harshly denounced the EPP for its antagonistic behaviour and its incessant social media campaign, which last week took a surprising turn with a bizarre-looking tweet that claimed the law would “kick Santa out of his house” by turning the “entire city of Rovaniemi into a forest.”
“EPP, what happened? You walked away from the negotiation table. You tweet about Santa Claus. It’s all very funny. But let’s get back to reality. Let’s take this vote and it’s finally time you support nature restoration,” said Bas Eickhout, from the Greens.
“The attempt led by the European People’s Party to reject the Nature Restoration Law sends a devastating message about the viability of the Green Deal. The right has made the environmental agenda the ideal course for its electoral dispute with the far right,” said Iratxe García Pérez, chair of the Socialists & Democrats (S&D).
Caught in the middle of the fire was Renew Europe, the liberal group, whose internal divisions over the proposed law have hindered a common position.
If, as expected, the vast majority of conservative-learning lawmakers vote on Wednesday against the legislation, a handful of votes from Renew Europe would be enough to tilt the balance and seal its fate.
“We must not allow this far-right populism, these fake news and lies that you have been propagating for a year and that you have again brazenly repeated in this house,” said Pascal Canfin, one of Renew Europe’s most outspoken advocates for the law.
But his Dutch colleague, Jan Huitema, expressed a diametrically opposed view.
“The proposal, on paper, sounds fantastic but in reality, it would slow things down unnecessarily,” Huitema said. “Of all the legislative proposals I’ve looked at during my time in parliament, this is the one that will have the biggest impact on people back home. This is a proposal that we cannot accept.”
At the of the debate, Virginijus Sinkevičius, the European Commissioner for the environment, took the floor and refuted several “misconceptions” and “misunderstandings” voiced by MEPs, whom he name-checked.
Sinkevičius said time was “running out” to reverse the decline of Europe’s biodiversity and warned the bloc’s executive, as previously announced, would not come up with a brand new text if the one currently on the table falls apart.
“You might be surprised to hear this, but to me, this debate has shown that an agreement is possible,” Sinkevičius said. “A compromise is possible and within reach. The divergences are not as big as to justify rejection.”