What is the EU’s nature restoration law and why was it controversial?

The European Parliament has narrowly backed a key biodiversity bill aimed at rewilding EU land and water habitats, overcoming a backlash by lawmakers who said it would hurt farmers

The stakes on the EU’s controversial nature restoration law could not have been higher. If its latest iteration had not been endorsed this week by a full sitting of the European Parliament, it would have meant the landmark European green deal would have been scuttled as its biodiversity pillar would have been pulled away.

That would have been disastrous for nature as we are witnessing the collapse of Europe’s natural systems. More than 80 per cent of European habitats and 63 per cent of species have unfavourable status. That applies equally to Ireland.

The level of concern was reflected in an unlikely alliance of citizens; large food multinationals, scientists and NGOs (including climate campaigner Greta Thunberg) who all came out strongly in favour.

The vote was close and the debate was frequently bitter. Fine Gael’s centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) led an effort to reject the law outright in the vote of MEPs in the plenary session, but this failed in a knife-edge result after it was backed by 312 MEPs, with 324 against. All Irish MEPs voted to keep the law alive, including Fine Gael MEPs who initially had reservations about it.


Reaction to the outcome ranges from relief that “nature has been saved from the abyss” to those who believe amendments – notably from member states through the European Council – gutted the proposal of its most significant conservation measures, while farmer suspicion remains.

Why was it so bitter?

The finger of most blame must attach to the EPP, which led the charge that it was fundamentally anti-farming and would undermine food system security. The group, a key support of the EU farming lobby, was accused of keeping an eye to next year’s European elections amid indications it is losing the farming vote.

To that mix was added disinformation, including false claims that farmers would have their land seized or be forced to re-wet their drained peatlands. This was coming on top of an already polarised debate on addressing the climate and biodiversity crises between the agriculture/rural sector and environmentalists, which is stalling progress based on collective acceptance that agriculture is critical to nature restoration.

Layered on top of this was an ideological battle between an anti-ecological centre-right alliance and a coalition of left/green parties. The latter won out.

Green MEP Grace O’Sullivan of the parliament’s environment committee tweeted after the vote: “Everyone in Ireland and Europe can celebrate the rescue of the Nature Restoration Law today. Tomorrow a lot of soul searching will be required following a campaign of disinformation and scaremongering against the law. Citizens need constructive leadership in Europe!”

What was the legislative path to here; what happens next?

After months of acrimony with farmer organisations in Ireland and Europe set against it, tensions built in advance of a critical committee vote on June 27th. That was evenly split, forcing the deciding vote to be taken on July 12th. In the meantime, the Council reached an agreed position with lower targets and more flexibility than originally proposed, with increased supports through the EU nature fund. This was accepted – and FG rebels got it across the line.

“Ireland is facing a biodiversity crisis. This is experienced first-hand by our farmers and fishers, who are custodians of our land, rivers and seas and who see the everyday impact on their businesses,” Seán Kelly (FG) said in advance of the vote. Amendments were an opportunity to “correct the proposal”.

The law is now clear to proceed to the final negotiations between the parliament and member states in coming months. It requires countries to develop national plans on restoration measures, including voluntary rewetting of peatlands, restoring marine habitats and allowing blocked rivers to flow.