Skip to content

E.U. landmark nature restoration law approved in hard-fought victory

The highly contested law passed with 20 countries representing 66% of the E.U. population voting in favor — just above the 65% required for approval.

Sunset reflected in a lake at Brocēni, Latvia
Sunset reflected in a lake at Brocēni, Latvia (AN/Madara Parma/Unsplash)

BRUSSELS (AN) – The European Union's sweeping nature restoration law, a cornerstone of the bloc's Green Deal, overcame its final obstacle as environment ministers green-lit the legislation, with last-minute backing from Austria and Slovakia proving decisive.

The vote on Monday marks the culmination of two years of intense negotiations and clears the path for the legislation to take effect across the bloc. With legally binding targets and obligations covering ecosystems from wetlands to grasslands, forests, rivers, lakes, and marine habitats, the law becomes one of the E.U.'s most comprehensive pieces of environmental legislation.

"Today the Council formally adopted the – first of its kind – regulation on nature restoration," the Council of the E.U. said after the vote. "The new rules will help to restore degraded ecosystems across member states' land and sea habitats, achieve the E.U.'s overarching objectives on climate mitigation and adaptation, and enhance food security."

The law mandates the restoration of at least 20% of the E.U.'s land and sea areas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. Over 80% of European habitats currently require restoration, according to E.U. data. 

It prioritizes restoration measures in Natura 2000 sites, a network of protected areas home to Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats, setting targets to restore at least 30% of habitats in poor condition by 2030, 60% by 2040, and 90% by 2050.

The regulation also requires E.U. members to put in place measures to reverse the alarming decline in wild insect pollinators by 2030, restore drained peatlands, plant at least 3 billion additional trees by 2030, and remove man-made barriers to convert at least 25,000 kilometers of rivers into free-flowing waterways.

"There is no time for a break in protecting our environment," said Belgium's Environment Minister Alain Maron, who chaired Monday's vote, as Belgium holds the rotating E.U. Presidency. "It is our duty to respond to the urgency of the collapse of biodiversity in Europe, but also to enable the European Union to meet its international commitments."

Final vote results on the nature restoration law by E.U. environment ministers in Luxembourg.

Austria's last-minute support proves crucial

The nature restoration law's passage mirrors the dramatic vote in the E.U. Parliament in November last year when right-wing lawmakers rallied to defeat the deal but ultimately fell short.

The opposition to the law in Parliament, led by the European People's Party (EPP), raised concerns about its impact on the agricultural sector. Farmers' protests across Europe have sought to stop the law, arguing it threatens their livelihoods. Monday's vote is expected to reignite farmers' protests in Brussels.

The EU's nature restoration law faced an uncertain fate at the vote in the Environment Council meeting in Luxembourg, until an unexpected press conference on Sunday changed the game.

"The time for decisiveness has come," Austria's Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler told reporters. "I will vote in favour of the EU Nature Restoration Law on Monday."

Gewessler, a member of the Green Party, sparked a furor among her conservative coalition partners in Austria who oppose the law. The green-right-wing coalition, the first of its kind in Austria, has governed in an uneasy but stable alliance since Jan. 2020.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, leader of the conservative People's Party (OeVP) that heads the governing coalition, threatened legal action in the E.U. Court of Justice if Gewessler followed through with her vote. He argued in a letter to Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre De Croo that Gewessler was "not entitled" to vote in favor of the law, citing a "lack of consensus" within the coalition.

Karoline Edtstadler, Nehammer's minister for E.U. and constitutional affairs, warned that Gewessler's vote would be unconstitutional and "must and will have legal consequences."

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer argued in a letter to Belgian Prime Minister Alexandre De Croo that Gewessler was "not entitled" to vote in favor of the law.

Passage on 'a knife's edge'

Belgium's Environment Minister and meeting chair, Alain Maron, said Gewessler's vote was within her power as Austria's environment minister, adding that "internal controversy in Austria" had no bearing on the E.U.'s voting procedures.

"The vote is given by the ministers around the table and in the room," Maron said. "There is no question about that. That's the way it works."

Gewessler wasn't alone in pushing the vote over the line. In her Sunday announcement, she acknowledged the vote was on "a knife's edge" and a majority was "in no way certain." The law faced persistent opposition from Italy, Sweden, and Finland, while Hungary and Poland withdrew their support ahead of a final vote in March.

Slovakia's support during the pivotal vote, despite previous reservations about the law, allowed the legislation to pass with a slim majority of 20 countries, representing 66% of the E.U. population — just above the 65% threshold needed for approval.

The breakthrough came just in time, as Belgium's E.U. presidency concludes on June 30, when Hungary will take over. Had the vote been delayed, the legislation would have been pushed back until after Hungary's six-month term and multiple national elections, including Austria's in September.

Gewessler's vote follows the far-right Freedom Party's narrow victory in Austria's E.U. elections last week, with Chancellor Nehammer's conservative OeVP trailing by less than a point. Polls indicate she likely would not have been in a position to back the law after the upcoming national elections.

"My conscience tells me unequivocally: when the healthy and happy lives of future generations are at stake, courageous decisions are needed," she said. "That's why I voted in favour of this #natureprotection law today."