(Bloomberg) -- Of the more-than 50 European Union laws that have been passed since President Ursula von der Leyen first put forward the bloc’s green deal in 2019, none have been as controversial as the plan to re-wild a fifth of the continent’s land and sea.

The Nature Restoration Law was approved on Monday after Leonore Gewessler, Austria’s climate minister, defied Chancellor Karl Nehammer, her boss, to cast the deciding vote. It now requires the EU to return 20% of its habitats — from forests to wetlands — to good status by the end of the decade.

“In 20 or 30 years when I will talk to my two nieces and show them the beauty of our country and this continent, and they ask me ‘What did you do when everything was at stake?’ I want to to be able to tell them I did as much as I could,” Gewessler said before the meeting of environment ministers that saw a final agreement reached. 

The first-of-its-kind law is a milestone for the world, after global leaders pledged at a United Nations biodiversity summit in 2022 to protect 30% of the planet by 2030. Few, if any, countries have put in place measures that are as comprehensive as the EU’s. 

It also brings to an end a dramatic focal point for the backlash against the EU green deal, a package of measures designed to put the region on the path to climate neutrality by the middle of the century. While banning combustion engine vehicles and boosting renewables have sparked heated battles, they haven’t been nearly as protracted as the law designed to restore ecosystems to their former glory. The Nature Restoration Law has been on the cusp of failure numerous times over the past two years.

So why was it so controversial?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proved to be the first turning point. The European Commission, the executive branch of the 27-member trade bloc, put forward the law not long after the march on Kyiv in February 2022. The spiraling energy costs and fluctuating food prices that followed triggered waves of farmer protests, and the quest to help nature suddenly found itself thrust into culture wars.

In EU policymaking, member states and parliament usually add amendments to commission proposals before negotiating among themselves on the final shape of a law. What was odd with this one, however, was the normally progressive parliament became a major block. The European People’s Party, a coalition of center-right lawmakers from across EU member states, said it flatly rejected the law.

“The Nature Restoration Law in its current form will lead to less food production in Europe, pushing food prices even higher, risks undermining food security in Africa even more and blocking infrastructure projects that are crucial for our climate transition,” EPP President Manfred Weber said in May last year. “We cannot continue as if nothing has happened to our economy since the start of the war.”

Weber’s push to kill the law nearly worked: Parliament’s environment committee approved it by the margin of a single vote last June. It narrowly made it through the wider chamber the following month, before a deal was struck with member states in November. But the fight was not over.

Farmers drove their tractors into major European cities, including Brussels, home to the EU’s major institutions. During a summit of EU leaders, 1,300 tractors clogged the streets to call for, among other things, a rollback of the green deal’s measures targeting agriculture. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban met with the protesters in a bid to score political points and rally the far-right in Europe ahead of elections.

“It’s a European mistake that the voice of people is not taken seriously by leaders,” he told reporters after meeting with farmers.

Hungary reneged on the deal reached with parliament on the Nature Restoration Law. Others followed suit, including member states Italy, Poland, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands — and even Belgium, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU. Once again, the measure looked set to fail. Other initiatives aiming to make agriculture more environmentally friendly, such as a law on pesticides, were dropped altogether.

Things looked even more ominous after populists surged in European parliamentary elections earlier this month. Yet the far-right did not gain enough seats to overhaul the centrist majority, giving ministers one last chance to push through the law this week. Austria’s Gewessler said consultations with legal experts gave her the justification to vote in favor, even as Chancellor Nehammer wrote to Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo that he did not give his consent.

The conflict is likely to put further strain on Austria’s government before elections in September, but for Gewessler, who is in the Greens, it was a price worth paying. And it looks as though she may have skillfully navigated Chancellor Nehammer’s weaknesses, as public opinion in Austria recently showed support for the law.

Nehammer pledged to challenge the decision and described his minister’s actions as a breach of trust. He fell short of more decisive measures, such as calling an end of his coalition government with Gewessler’s Greens.

Meanwhile, amid the backlash from farmers, a major lobby group in the EU, it’s not clear whether Brussels will be able to do much more in areas such as agriculture in the coming years.

“I know I will face opposition on this, but I am convinced this is the time to adopt this law,” Gewessler said. “There is a time for change, there is a moment for change. And this moment is now.”

--With assistance from Marton Eder.

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