Crucial European Green Deal package staggers to legislative conclusion | European Commission

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The European Green Deal is limping to the legislative finish line as elections loom and farmers continue to stage fierce protests across the continent.

The policy package, launched with fanfare by the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen five years ago, was supposed to make Europe climate-neutral by 2050. But with elections in June, in which polls suggest that some countries may take a swing to the right, the EU is gutting some of its key policies to cut pollution and protect the environment.

On Monday, the EU Council cancelled a vote on a law to restore nature after eight member states took back their support. The next day, it approved a proposal from the commission to cut some green strings on farming subsidies, which make up a third of the EU’s entire budget. At the same time, member states called on Brussels to weaken an existing law to tackle deforestation in countries from which Europe sources crops.

“It is hard,” said Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s environment commissioner, who pointed to elections and farming protests as reasons for resistance to the final policy packages of the green deal. “But I do trust we will go through the finish line together with all member states.”

Not all of the environmental backsliding is about agriculture. An economy-wide law to tackle environmental abuses in supply chains barely passed this month after member states watered it down to cover a fraction of the companies for which it was proposed.

But farming has proved to be the most resistant sector to new rules. Agriculture pumps out at least 11% of all planet-heating gases emitted in the EU, many of which damage the heart and lungs when inhaled, and are a main driver of the destruction of wildlife.

But while the continent’s emissions have stayed more or less steady for the last 15 years, efforts to rein in the damage to human health and the environment – or make farmers and their customers pay for some of their pollution – have been met with fierce resistance. Honking lines of tractors, flaming bales of hay and stinking piles of manure have regularly gummed up the streets of European capitals over the last few months as farmers have fought rules they say they can’t afford. Green policies, as well as Ukrainian grain imports and a proposed free trade deal with South American countries, have borne the brunt of their anger.

Buoyed up by public support and appeased by politicians fearful of a rightward lurch in rural villages, farmers have secured concession after concession from European leaders. But they are also likely to pay a price for their success. Europe’s farms and fisheries are already suffering from a climate that has become more violent, and soils and waterways that have grown less supportive of life. In just one example of the odd ways this is already affecting daily life, thieves now steal more olive oil from Spanish supermarkets than any other food, data released this month shows, on the back of droughts and recurring heatwaves that have ruined harvests and sent prices of the “liquid gold” soaring.

Climate scientists say the picture for the planet is not all gloomy. Most of the policies that make up the European Green Deal, which has withstood the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, have already passed – though often in a weakened form after lobbying from industry and member states. The continent has some of the highest environmental standards in the world and has been able to encourage businesses to transition even without the vast subsidies for clean technology available in the US or China.

But the biggest threat to its success now lies with the possible collapse of the nature restoration laws, the fate of which hangs in the air. The proposal is one of the pillars of the green deal and it is unclear if Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, will be able to find a majority among member states in the coming weeks to provide what should have been a rubber stamp for an already watered-down proposal.

Speaking at a meeting of ministers on Monday, Irish climate and transport minister Eamon Ryan said retreating at this stage would be “disastrous” for nature and for public confidence in European institutions. “To allow this to go now means we’re going into a European election where we say the European system is not working, we do not protect nature, we do not take climate seriously.”