The EU Nature Restoration Law has been saved but with its ambition deeply eroded—negotiators must restore its aspirations.
On July 12th, the European Parliament narrowly avoided rejection of the proposed Nature Restoration Law (NRL)—by a margin of just 12 votes out of 648. Shortly afterwards, 140 amendments were passed (by 36 votes) which fundamentally weakened the legislation. It was a stiff price for ‘success’. This hollowed-out starting point on the part of the parliament will now be taken by lawmakers into the ‘trilogue’ phase of the legislative procedure, where the parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission negotiate what this law will mean.
The tight vote margin saw a mainly right and far-right coalition from the European People’s Party (EPP)—the largest and oldest group in the parliament—and the European Conservatives and Reformists, determined to reject the law, outweighed by the Socialists and Democrats, the Left and Greens in support of the proposal. The liberal Renew group was split (26 for the rejection, 63 against, seven abstaining), fortunately with more backing the NRL than opposed.
It was not simple party politics with the conservatives either. Some EPP members voted in favour of the law, as did several EPP-affiliated ministers in June in the council, which adopted its position with 20 countries in support. The immense campaign to reject the NRL, building on misinformation and importing US Republican strategies, had been promoted by Manfred Weber, leader of the EPP group. He tried to close ranks within his party using strong-arm tactics but ultimately failed—individual convictions still count in EU politics.
Out of concern that a key opportunity risked being scuppered by political point-scoring, more than one million signatures and messages from citizens had been gathered, urging MEPs to stand firm. This effort was backed by a wide alliance of civil society, youth activists, businesses and more than 6,000 scientists, leading to unprecedented media coverage of nature and the European Union. That strong support extended to business leaders and ministers from all parties, delivering a clear message ahead of the elections to the parliament next year: nature matters to citizens and they care deeply about the EU.
The NRL now goes into the final negotiations among the three main EU bodies. The commission’s proposal was a good basis, welcomed by NGOs while still needing strengthening for an enforceable law. The council position was greeted positively, because of the clear support from the member states for the law as such, but it came at the price of dilution, with multiple exemptions creating legal loopholes and weakening the benefits the law could bring on the ground.
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The parliament’s concurrence was emptied of most of its ambition, making it even weaker than the council’s position. In particular, the deletion of restoration measures on agriculture lands is deeply concerning, given their vital role in soil health, farmland biodiversity, water retention, carbon storage and climate adaptation—crucial for climate crisis resilience.
Such measures are also essential to secure sustainable food security. With current heatwaves and extreme-weather events directly hitting farmers, the outcome appears nonsensical, highlighting the absurdity of the EPP’s claim to represent farmers’ real-world interests.
The trilogue partners must recognise the opportunities offered by the NRL, counter the misinformation and focus on evidence-based negotiations which benefit farmers, secure a liveable future for our children and preserve nature for all. There is no future without it.
Politics cannot ignore physical reality. Science does not heed power plays or accommodate political pressures. Decisions must align with facts to avoid the worst impacts of major climate breakdown. Destructive political games should have no place in the negotiation room: solutions must tackle effectively today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.
Nor can politics over a single dossier ignore wider commitments already made. A strong NRL is crucial if the EU is to meet its climate-mitigation targets and international biodiversity goals and sustain the union’s credibility and leadership at the COP28 meeting later this year in Dubai. A hollowed-out NRL would undermine those commitments.
As a baseline, the NRL needs to contain legally binding, timebound targets to maintain its purpose. With the deletion of the peatland, farmland bird and butterflies targets, and weakened restoration targets for land, oceans and urban areas, the final parliament position was voided of its essence.
In the trilogue, peatland and agricultural-land restoration targets must be put back. An NRL worthy of its name cannot abandon peatlands restoration and cannot offer nothing to European farmers who will be facing floods, droughts and pests—so article 9 on agricultural ecosystems needs to be reinstated. The commission must insist on this point and the other two institutions must provide a workable compromise which still delivers real action.
To ensure a law that works, the NRL also must include effective provisions to ensure net restoration of nature—not just restoration of some areas to offset further loss or restoration that proves temporary. Derogations and loopholes must not undermine commitments and access to justice should be central. Finally, creating a restoration fund through national conservation authorities for large-scale projects is needed to ensure implementation of the law on the ground.
Trust in democracy
Only if citizens see that political parties, national leaders and European institutions fight for the future we need will there be trust in the EU, trust in leadership, trust in democracy. If the negotiations embrace the continued degradation of our ecosystems, no one should be surprised if we fail in the face of the climate crisis.
Our leaders have a choice—a responsibility. The voters, and history, will judge.
Erica Gentili and Alberto Vela of EEB also contributed to this article