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  • Juncker Commission has much to prove on environment

    The European Parliament voted last week to approve a college of commissioners with much to prove in terms of its commitment to environmentally-sustainable policies and effective measures to fight climate change. The Commission was formally accepted by the European Council on Friday morning.

    Environmental campaigners raised serious concerns about Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s team during Parliament hearings. These were the general downgrading of sustainability, the ‘review and rollback’ mandate given to the environment commissioner, and the oil industry interests of the climate and energy commissioner. 
    Miguel Arias Cañete, Spain’s agriculture minister, was given the climate action commissioner role despite a potential conflict of interest; he was a shareholder and former president at two Spanish oil companies. Mr Canete, who also served for 13 years as a centre-right MEP, sold his shares shortly after being announced for the portfolio. However, in Parliament hearings he declined to answer questions about his brother-in-law’s role as director of both firms.
    Mr Cañete pledged to MEPs to strike a balance between climate action while looking out for Europe’s industries. Some lawmakers compared his commitment to boosting renewables such as wind power with the Spanish government’s ending of subsidies for renewables in Spain.
    Environmental groups were also alarmed at the failure to make full implementation of the 7th Environment Action Programme – a legally binding commitment – an explicit task of the new environment commissioner, Karmenu Vella. The Maltese commissioner’s mandate letter also implies the weakening of the Birds and Habitats Directives and key legislation on air quality and chemicals.
    Mr Vella was vague in his responses to MEPs’ questions, particularly on how he would ensure environmental issues were given proper weight in economic discussions and decision making. Nor did he explain how he would balance the enforcement of existing regulations, such as those for air pollution which are widely breached, with new proposals to address urgent environmental issues.
    Mr Juncker also appointed a vice-president for energy union with no mandate for climate – a key criticism by the Green10 group of environmental organisations active at EU level. The outgoing commissioner for inter-institutional relations, Maroš Šefčovič, was allocated the portfolio after MEPs refused to approve Slovenia’s original nominee, Alenka Bratušek, following her poor performance in the hearing.
    Mr Šefčovič, from Slovakia, praised energy demand-side measures just as much as supply-side ones, and highlighted climate concerns as much as energy ones. Slovenia’s second nominee, Violeta Bulc, followed a similar ‘all of the above’ approach in her hearing for transport commissioner. She said the ‘user pays’ and ‘polluter pays’ principles are important to her, but at one point also stated that she loved flying and refused to commit to enforcing the aviation ETS should ICAO fail to agree on a market-based measure by 2016.
    Mr Juncker did, however, move to address one environmental concern following the hearings when he included sustainability in the portfolio of ‘first’ vice-president Frans Timmermans. The Dutch centre-left politician will now oversee ‘better regulation, inter-institutional relations, the rule of law, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and sustainable development’.
    T&E director Jos Dings commented: ‘It is good that Mr Juncker has made some changes to anchor sustainability higher in the Commission organisational chart. But by no means does this address all our concerns, so we have our work cut out for five years of hard campaigning to show that our agenda is what Europe needs to get out of the current bind’.
    The new Commission was approved by the Parliament by 423 votes to 209, with 67 abstentions. It will take office on 1 November.