Frans Timmermans fights for his green heritage
Don’t panic with European Commissioner Frans Timmermans (Green Deal), even if a crucial debate awaits him. Many of the MEPs he met on Monday want to have his nature restoration law and other green plans shredded. Timmermans’ political legacy – the green revolution in the EU – hangs in the balance.
The omens are decidedly unfavorable for the Dutch surveillance director. Earlier this month, the European Christian Democrats (the largest group in the European Parliament) spoke loud and clear about the Nature Restoration Act, as well as the halving of pesticide use by farmers, as proposed by Timmermans. Was this still to be expected – the CDA’s European siblings had been hoping for some time against ‘climate pope Frans’ – a week later French President Emmanuel Macron’s unexpected suggestion followed to press the pause button for new green initiatives. A “misunderstanding”, later adjured the Elysée.
About the Author
Marc Peeperkorn was European correspondent for by Volkskrant. He lives and works in Brussels.
Last week, Timmermans had to take another direct from the right, this time from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The German Christian Democrat said without batting an eyelid that bills that parliament and member states can still deal with until next spring’s European election campaign should shut down the Brussels machinery should be investigated.
Striking, because Von der Leyen approved all these bills himself. “A trend is emerging,” notes an EU official concerned about the growing cry that enough has been done with the green wave.
It is especially the law of restoration of nature which arouses the anger of conservative parliamentarians these days. MEP Esther de Lange (CDA) compares this law to a blank check that she will not sign. According to her, the Netherlands will be confined by this law. Nature restoration demands would limit agriculture, housing, transportation and many other forms of activity.
The Flemish liberals speak of “enlightened despotism”. If the climate changes, nature and people simply have to adapt, according to these liberals. Right-wing groups in parliament see the Nature Restoration Act as the ultimate example of ‘green madness’ destroying Europe and proof that the ‘elite’ want to grab land from farmers.
It had been clear for some time that this law would encounter resistance. One of the first – and still the strongest – opponents is the Netherlands, which violates current nature conservation regulations that have already been in force for years. At the end of last year, long before the BoerBurgerBeweging won the general elections, Agriculture Minister Piet Adema was already warning in Brussels that this would have been good. “Not now, not all at once,” was his message on the law. Minister Christianne van der Wal (Nature and Nitrogen) was recently in Strasbourg to support the resistance.
The bill, presented by the Commission in June 2022, aims to halt the degradation of the quality of land, rivers and seas. About 80 percent of habitats are in poor condition, partly due to over-fertilization, pollution and drought. This threatens the biodiversity essential to agriculture, but also to many other sectors.
If it is up to the Commission, at least 20% of land and seas will be covered by a recovery program by 2030. In addition, the decline in the number of pollinators (bees, butterflies) must be halted, cities more parks and give more space to the rivers. With another law, the Commission wants to halve the use of pesticides.
The ambitious plans that the Commission is carrying out require further explanation. Timmermans will explain to parliamentarians that the nature restoration law will not come at the expense of food production, an argument that opponents are happy to use. On the contrary, argues the Commission: continuing on the old path, with even more loss of biodiversity, compromises food security.
The fact that farmers will no longer be allowed to use 10% of their land, as claimed by the Christian Democrats, is denied by the Commission. This is a different use of land next to ditches and roadsides, which the new agricultural policy already prescribes.
The Commission also brings up the realm of fiction that sea stimulus plans are hampering the construction of offshore wind farms. These parks are good for recovery as they serve as a natural reef and fishing is not permitted. In any case, the Nature Restoration Act only prescribes that a recovery plan must be in place by 2030. The duration of the recovery largely depends on the Member States concerned.
Remarkable also, given the fierce resistance in The Hague: according to the Commission, the consequences of the law in our country are limited. At the time, the Netherlands had gone very far in designating Natura2000 natural (protected) areas. As a result, the Nature Restoration Act leads to a maximum of 200 square kilometers of additional land that needs to be restored. Restored and unprotected, economic activity remains possible. ‘An edge on the Veluwemeer’, calculates one person involved. “And so no: the whole country is going to be locked down.” The contested “prohibition of deterioration” in the law affects the Netherlands less than other countries.
“Steam and Boiling Water”
This does not change the fact that anger is high in Parliament. Jan Huitema, member of the VVD and follower of agriculture without blinders, also believes that the Commission has gone too far. “We should not rush these plans through Parliament with steam and boiling water.” What certainly did not help were the recent letters sent by Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius (Environment, Oceans, Fisheries) to the Netherlands (about nitrate rules), to Germany (about shrimp fishing) and Spain (agriculture). The administrative tone (these are the laws you must comply with) reinforced the image that Brussels is controlled by cousins of non-worldly rulers.
Not entirely disadvantageous for Timmermans, moreover, it gives him the opportunity to present himself as an “understanding realist”: tell me your problems, we will try to find a solution. This is absolutely necessary, as several bills will be tabled before the summer and will meet with considerable resistance. For example, the Soil Health Act to improve soil quality, which goes beyond stopping deterioration. Environmental organizations advocate strict and binding standards.
At the same time, in an attempt to nip farmers’ resistance in the bud, the Commission is proposing to relax the rules on GMOs. A compromise: fewer pesticides, more resistant crops. Additionally, farmers can be subsidized if they opt for farming methods that reduce CO2 emissions.2 keep in the ground.
The art of the helmsman
There’s a lot at stake, realizes Timmermans. Its flagship, the Green Deal, presented in 2020, seemed to achieve its end goal thanks to agile piloting. Virtually all climate measures – end of the combustion engine, more expensive CO2allowances, renovation and insulation of buildings – were passed on time. Circular economy proposals (eco-design; less packaging) do not seem controversial. The pain is in the third pillar of the Green Deal: strengthening biodiversity.
The credibility of the EU is at stake, according to the Commission. How can the Union encourage China, Brazil and India to play their part in the fight against climate change if the Member States decide that enough is enough? The ECB also warns: the postponement of the measures will ultimately only increase the bill and make it more painful.
The transition to sustainable energy has started irreversibly, concludes the new Brussels think tank Strategic insights this month. The laws are in place, now is the time to implement them. “But past successes are no guarantee for the future,” says a Commission official.
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