Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has sparked controversy after coming out in favour of putting the European green legislation "on pause." His unexpected position has brought him under heavy fire from his own government.
The premier's statement aligns him with Flemish Environment Minister Zuhal Demir, who called for a "reality check" or even a "pause" on new climate plans on Tuesday. In apparent agreement, De Croo stated that Belgium should hold back from implementing the EU nature plans as they supposedly threaten to destroy the Belgian industry.
Speaking on VRT's 'Terzake' television programme on Tuesday evening, De Croo said that "At some point, we have to make a choice," and went on to criticise the future European Nature Restoration Act, a law to ensure that 20% of nature is restored by 2030.
Not to be cast as a complete climate denier, De Croo did show his favour for EU environmental targets: "The reduction of greenhouse gases, that is achievable: you feel there is a momentum there." However, he was reluctant to embark on any further efforts to protect biodiversity: "We have to avoid overloading the cart. Setting new standards on nitrogen, nature restoration, biodiversity or (chemical) products in addition to the targets on CO2... All of that is really starting to overload that cart."
Biting off more than we can chew
De Croo fears that European industry will "no longer be able to cope" with the regulations, resulting in the continent no longer meeting its targets to cut CO2 emissions. To this end, he expressed concerns that "we risk losing the momentum around climate change" and cautioned that this will "create scepticism about everything."
But the green parties in De Croo's Federal Government (Flemish Groen and Francophone Ecolo) were less sympathetic to the Prime Minister's fears, saying that they "could not believe their ears" in a press statement issued on Tuesday evening: "The Prime Minister's statements are outrageous and do not represent the government."
"European agreements are not just a piece of paper. The Prime Minister is putting himself in the camp of the climate procrastinators," said Groen co-chairs Nadia Naji and Jeremie Vaneeckhout. "There might be a seat for those procrastinators at the table of the Flemish government, not at the Federal level."
The parties stressed that nature and climate go hand in hand and insisted on the need to accelerate efforts rather than slow down. Previously, Federal Climate Minister Zakia Khattabi urged the immediate need for the Nature Restoration Act's implementation; she criticised De Croo's comments as being "not the Federal position, and not the Belgian position either."
On Flemish radio on Wednesday morning, Groen's Vaneeckhout repeated that the PM's statements were "a personal opinion and not the position of the Federal Government". He added that De Croo is turning away from the gravity of the problem.
"The situation is unheard of. We see that nature is under pressure in Europe – specifically in Flanders. De Croo denies not only the nature problem but also the economic problems that will follow." Vaneeckhout took a swipe at what he sees as De Croo's attempt to curry favour ahead of next year's election and stressed that the government was not formed "to push a pause button, but rather to solve problems."
Growing nature or the economy?
Sammy Mahdi, the leader of the Flemish Christian democrat CD&V party (also part of the Federal Government) echoed some of the Prime Minister's reservations, stating that the European Nature Restoration Act would be "a disaster for our economy."
"Not bad for those who believe in fables of degrowth, disastrous for those who care about wealth creation," he wrote on Twitter. "We do not support a proposal that would mean the end of the farming profession for many of our Flemish farmers."
CD&V and its umbrella party in the EU, European People's Party (EPP) have been vocally opposing the Nature Restoration Act for some time. According to the Farmers' Union, the law threatens the future of the agricultural sector.
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In the meantime, Flemish Environment Minister Demir said in a press release that she was "surprised" by De Croo's statements: "The turn of the Federal Government is a good thing, but insufficient. If De Croo really wants to present himself as a great leader, he'd best join [French President Emmanuel] Macron and myself in advocating a reality check of the entire European climate policy."
Macron was the first to speak of a "regulatory pause" around European climate and nature policy. "In terms of regulation, we are way ahead of the Americans, the Chinese and all the other major powers in the world," he said earlier this month. "Now we have to implement, not adapt more rules, because then we will lose all the companies."
On Wednesday (today), an intra-Belgian consultation on the position around the Nature Restoration Act will take place. On 20 June, the European Environment Ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss the case.