EU approval of Nature Restoration Law was a dark day for democracy

L-R Pheilim Molloy INHFA Chair, Sharon Cosgrove INHFA National Secretary and Vincent Roddy INHFA President in Brussels representing INHFA members and addressing concerns around the Nature Restoration Law.

Last Monday’s decision by the EU Council of Ministers to approve the Nature Restoration Law (NRL) came as no surprise to most people. The view which has also been expressed by many others was that once the EU elections were over, enough breathing space would be provided to allow Governments pass a law that has been dogged by controversy.

This we should remember is a law that three sub-committees of the EU Parliament, ie the Agriculture Committee, Fisheries Committee and the Environment Committee which was the lead committee for the NRL rejected.  We should also recognise that each of these committees represented vital sectors of industry that will be critical in the delivery of the objectives detailed in this law.

The fact that the EU Institutions persisted with this law after these defeats is in itself a poor reflection of their standing, and even after this you couldn’t imagine it getting any worse, but last Monday it was brought to a new low.

The decision by Austria’s Environment Minister, Leonore Gewessler to back the law was vital in delivering the qualified majority necessary by the Council of Ministers to approve the NRL. However, the question is, did she have the authority to do this?

As someone that is married to an Austrian, I am somewhat familiar with their political systems which differs in its administration to Ireland. This difference stems from the fact that Austria is a federation of nine different regions and these regions have a lot of power. Contrast this to Ireland where all major decisions are made centrally and while our County Councils have some power it is very limited in comparison to the Austrian Regions.

In explaining this I’m not saying that the political system of administration in Austria is better or worse than in Ireland but it does play a major role in understanding this controversy.

In Austria, similar to Ireland and other EU countries, there is a sizable area of land designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protected Areas (SPA). However, in Austria the budget and management of these designations is administered by the Regional (Authority) Government and the expectation is that the NRL would be administered in a similar manner.

Understanding this is important when it comes to the question of if their Environment Minister (Leonore Gewessler) had the authority to give approval from Austria for the NRL. On Sunday last she indicated that she was going to support the passing of the law which precipitated a letter from the Austrian Chancellor (Prime Minister) Karl Nehammer.

This letter was sent to the Belgium Prime Minister (Belgium currently holds the Council Presidency) prior to the vote stating that Minister Gewessler “may not give her consent to the (NRL).” This notification to abstain was “based on a uniform opinion of the Regional Governments, binding from the Federal Government under Austrian constitutional law as well as the lacking consensus within Austrian Federal Government”

Despite this letter the request was ignored by both Minister Gewessler and the EU Council of Ministers who proceeded to approve the law.

Currently there are two potential court cases as a result of Monday’s actions. The first legal challenge is to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) where Austria is challenging the decision by their Minister to give her approval and the second possible challenge is to the Austrian Courts around the constitutionality of the Ministers decision.

Time will tell if these cases proceed, but the likelihood of the NRL being rescinded is very low, however the manner of its approval does raise some concerning issues.

While the Council of Ministers and Minister Gewessler have argued that she as Minister had the right to make the decision, we need to differentiate between what is acceptable as opposed to what doesn’t break the law. In recent months we have seen people protest outside the homes of politicians – legally they are allowed to do this, but there are very few people who would say it is acceptable.

What we have seen through the development and final approval of the NRL is an ideology around the protection of nature, and while we may have issues around the detail in this law most people will accept the need to protect and enhance nature. However, when an ideology (no matter how noble) trumps democracy we are opening a dangerous door. That door was opened on Monday and that is why I say it is a dark day for democracy in Europe. Being legally right, even if that is what transpires isn’t enough. What happened on Monday is wrong, for the people of Austria and all EU citizens. The European Union was established and developed to be better than that.

The EU Institutions may still claim to be a lot of things, but one thing they can no longer claim is being democratic, at least not as most people understand it.

by Vincent Roddy INHFA President