EU agriculture ministers rally behind Austria's bid to revise EUDR but environmental groups reckon EC won't be deterred

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/Richard Drury
© GettyImages/Richard Drury

Related tags EUDR deforestation Austria

Agriculture ministers from 20 of the EU's 27 member countries supported Austria’s proposal to revise the EUDR at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday.

According to Reuters, Austria's demands, as conveyed by the country’s agriculture minister, Norbert Totschnig, include significantly reducing the burden of certifying products as deforestation-free within the EU and postponing the December 30 deadline for countries to comply with the law.

The Austrian delegation argues that the new obligations under the regulation will impose an excessive administrative burden on the European agricultural sector and it urges the Commission to ease the requirements for EU member states.

The EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) was officially signed into law in June 2023, and was the culmination of years of negotiations between member states, the Commission, and the EU Parliament, as well as consultations with academic experts and key stakeholders from industry and civil society. 

Environmental campaigners, Mighty Earth, say the Austrian ag ministry led initiative now seeks to unravel this carefully constructed law and water down the blueprint for its implementation, which is due to begin on January 1, 2025.

“This is an outrageous act of sabotage against the implementation of Europe’s groundbreaking law against imported deforestation. Any delay in enforcement would be catastrophic for climate change and nature loss,” commented Julian Oram, senior policy director at that organization.

However, he believes the Commission will disregard this initiative.

"Member states have a legal mandate from the European Council, Parliament, and Commission to enforce the EUDR as of January 1, 2025. Tremendous efforts have already been undertaken by companies and authorities to ready themselves for this date, as well as by producer countries outside of Europe. Its highly unlikely that the Commission will throw this timetable off track as a result of belated protests from disgruntled agriculture and forestry ministers," Oram told us.

Environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, when asked about this issue on Monday, outlined how he is currently travelling to countries that had been critical of the EUDR to engage in a constructive dialogue and to show that the EU is ready for full implementation.

"Of course, we will listen to the arguments, but I honestly do not see any issues. Because it is very strange for me that 100 days before elections, suddenly we find issues in the legislation, which we have been discussing for two and a half years. That legislation is not adopted in isolation. Member states are fully involved from the very beginning. Same with the members of the Parliament."

Risk classification pause

Though a postponement of the risk benchmarking of countries under the EUDR is reportedly being considered. Earlier this month, reports emerged​ suggesting that the Commission intends to halt the categorization of countries based on their risk levels of producing relevant commodities on land deforested after December 31, 2020. This decision comes after criticism from developing countries regarding the adverse effects of a 'high risk' label, which could lead to reduced operations or bias towards larger producers. Consequently, some EU importers are already reducing purchases from smallholders in these regions and favoring larger producers with superior technology.

"Due to prioritising other technical aspects of implementation, it seems credible that the Commission will postpone the risk benchmarking exercise, meaning all countries are likely to be considered as 'medium risk' when checks begin on January 1, 2025," remarked Oram.

Even if there is a delay in conducting risk benchmarking, the fundamental requirements of the EUDR must still be met, according to a briefing​ released this week by legal firm, Mayer Brown. 

“A possible delay in the classification of the countries (or parts thereof) into ‘high risk,’ ‘standard risk,’ and ‘low risk’ puts all EU operators and traders on equal footing, in terms of the intensity of checks to be performed by the national competent authorities. Namely, the same 3% threshold will apply regardless of the country of origin of the commodities/products that they place or make available on the EU market. This translates into a certain relief for producers from countries that are likely to be classified as ‘high risk,’ since only 3% of traders and operators placing or making available on the market or exporting their relevant products will be checked instead of 9% of operators and quantities that the EUDR envisages for high-risk countries. At the same time, however, the lack of classification of some countries as ‘low risk’ will subject relevant products originating in those countries to a higher threshold of checks than they would have otherwise enjoyed (1%).

"On that basis—even assuming the EU will indeed confirm that it postpones the mandatory December 30, 2024, deadline to classify countries into ‘high’ and ‘low’ risk categories—operators and traders placing relevant product in the EU market, as well as their suppliers, should continue preparing full steam for EUDR implementation. Any delay in classification of the countries into risk categories will not negate essential EUDR requirements that will still have to be fulfilled.”

Nature Restoration Law

The push back against the EUDR comes as the fate of EU’s Nature Restoration Law is left hanging in the balance, with a late minute decision by Hungary to oppose the law. The Belgian presidency is said to be still committed​ to finding sufficient support for the legislation.

"The attempt by agriculture ministries of Austria, Sweden, Italy and others to sabotage the EUDR implementation timetable is indicative of a wider retreat from green commitments by politicians across Europe, including the dramatic ditching of the EU Nature Restoration law and weakening of EU corporate environmental due diligence requirements.

"Despite widespread voter support for stronger green policies, politicians across the EU seem to be losing the stomach to see through key pillars of the European Green Deal, while mounting scientific evidence on climate and nature suggest these measures are needed now more than ever," added Oram.

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