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Eurout of line on the environment

European Parliament should block Juncker’s shocking attempt to undermine EU environmental policies. By James Nix

 

As currently proposed, the EU Commission would, for the first time in more than two decades, have no dedicated environment Commissioner. Instead environment is rolled in with fisheries and maritime to make up one of what are essentially 20 sub-Commissioner roles – under Commissioner Karmenu Vella. Its role will centre on deregulation.

Merging climate and energy and then putting this (sub) Commissioner under a Vice-President for Energy Union implies that climate action is considered subordinate to energy-market considerations.

Legally and practically, what new Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has done is quite revolutionary. Instead of 27 Commissioners, all on a par, under one President, Juncker has appointed a ‘first’ Vice President (Dutchman Frans Timmermans), High Representative for Foreign Affairs (Italian Federica Mogherini) and five Vice-Presidents. These seven plus Juncker himself form a team of eight that arches over 20 sub-Commissioners. Each of these 20 subordinates is to report in to a given Vice President – their line manager.

Critically, no legislative changes can be promoted by any sub-Commissioner without the approval of the supervising Vice President. Specifically on the environment, legislation “will now be the responsibility of the Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, who does not have the environment mentioned in his mandate” notes the Green 10, an alliance of European environment organisations. “Since the environment is completely absent from the priority list, and no Vice-President is charged with promoting it, this means a de facto shut down of EU environmental policy-making”.

With this downgrading, Juncker has decorated the stage for a serious subversion of existing EU commitments to sustainable development, resource efficiency, air quality, nature conservation, climate action – and health protection. Juncker’s changes come in spite of a Eurobarometer poll in September showing that notwithstanding the economic crisis, 95% of 28,000 citizens interviewed said that protecting the environment is important to them personally and that more should be done. The survey shows no public demand for environmental deregulation. Yet Juncker’s vision effectively scraps the 7th Environmental Action Programme, a legally binding commitment negotiated and agreed by Commission, Member States and European Parliament only a year ago.

Juncker’s plan to take responsibility for relations with the European Chemicals Agency, whose job is to protect European citizens from harmful chemicals, out of the Environment portfolio, where it now lies, and add it to Enterprise shows a clear bias towards prioritising business interests over human health and the environment.

 

The many conflicts of Miguel Arias Canete, Commissioner designate for Climate & Energy

Miguel Arias Canete, a member of Spain’s Partido Popular, was nominated to the newly-formed post of EU Climate and Energy Commissioner in mid September. During his tenure as Spain’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Environment from 2011 to mid 2014, Canete and his family controlled 80% of the shares in two oil companies. Yet part of Mr Canete’s environment brief in Madrid was to tackle climate change.

When both oil companies secured public contracts, as they did in 2011 and 2008, Mr Canete did not include this in his declaration of interests, which was an illegal omission. After his non-declaration was exposed, Mr Canete claimed he was not aware that the oil companies had secured the contracts. In light of the size of the state contracts, and the 80% family stake, it’s a very difficult claim to sustain.

Asked at the Commissioner hearing if (just after the recent share-selling) if his brother-in-law now controls both oil companies, Canete ducked the question arguing: “given that my wife and children are not involved [any longer], I have no conflict of interest”. Essentially, Canete’s pitch is that a brother-in-law doesn’t fall within the meaning of “family” for the purposes of declaring conflicts of interest – even if Canete himself was the one that handed over the reigns of control to his wife’s brother. But strategically, Canete’s move is cute: if the financial interests of the in-laws of all senior politicians were considered, it would open a Pandora’s Box, and he knows it.

Shortly after the nomination, the Green 10 wrote to Juncker asking him to “resolve potential conflicts of interest for the nominees, and notably for the Climate and Energy portfolio”. It was not until 16 Sept, a week after his nomination as Commissioner designate for Climate Action and Energy, that Mr Canete pledged to sell his €437,000 of shares in two oil companies. And it was some days after that again that Mr Canete affirmed that his wife and son would also sell their stakes.

Largely ignored in the coverage of the controversy, Canete has had to be pressured at every turn before starting to address his conflicts of interest. Mr Canete’s form stretches beyond energy. His record at home explains the strength of passion behind MEPs from green and left-wing parties as they posed questions to Canete at the recent hearing. While his wife ran a bull-breeding business, Canete pressed to have the EU’s system of agricultural subsidies (the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP) extended to cover bull breeding.

In the four years to 2012 Mr Canete’s wife received more than €615,000 in CAP payments. This money related not alone to bull breeding, but also to her large number of landholdings; Ms Canete benefits from having split up her farm into nine parcels just before changes in the CAP made such sub-division financially advantageous. Her husband says he recused himself from the making of these decisions.

Then there are the revisions to Spanish environment law. In drafting law to regulate development on the Spanish coastline, Mr Canete invited industry to meetings when the legislation was being drawn up. At the same time, he excluded civil society from the process – including Spain’s own regional authorities and those working on the issue across Spanish universities. The law has exacerbated coastal vulnerabilities. Many beaches have already been compromised and Spanish NGOs say Canete has set a trail of destruction in train. Again, a conflict is not far away: up to a year before spiriting through this legislation, Mr Canete was a director of a development company with interests in the Spanish coast.

Mr Canete made Phil Hogan look like Mary Robinson.

MEPs cannot reject any one Commissioner individually. An MEP can only vote for or against all 28 in one block. The poll is scheduled for 22 October. •

 

Juncker has ‘disappeared’ sustainability from EU priorities – at the time as the need for sustainability, resource efficiency and the circular economy are becoming more acute. In fact none of the above are even covered at all at Vice-President level, except for one vague reference to “green growth” in the mandate of the Energy Union Commissioner. This implies a Commission that will be operating on the basis of a hopelessly outdated paradigm of economic growth without counting real costs.

Vella has also been ordered by Juncker to stop the two most relevant policy packages inherited from the current Commission – the air quality package and the Circular Economy programme – to give more time for ‘assessment’.

Juncker’s chopping and changing of briefs also puts citizens’ health at risk: the shift of several responsibilities on regulation of harmful chemicals from the environment and health portfolios, handing them over to the enterprise directorate of the commission is telling.

Unless the Commission structure is changed, Europe is going to end up in a messy situation at next year’s global negotiations on climate emissions in Paris. It could send its Vice President for Energy Union – i.e. a representative with a portfolio that doesn’t cover climate. Or it could send the sub-Commissioner for Climate and Energy – but that would be to send someone from the junior ranks.

The European Parliament is now the only backstop to prevent an agenda to weaken more than 25 years of EU environment policy without democratic debate. At a minimum the Parliament must:

1. Secure a Vice-President for Sustainability with environment explicitly in the remit.

2. Ensure what is currently titled the Vice-President for “Energy Union” is amended to reflect “Climate Action and Energy Union”.

3. Ensure the Environment portfolio is reinstated, restoring its competences and providing the Commissioner with a new mandate to respect the European Parliament’s work and implement the 7th Environment Action Programme. Furthermore the Parliament must ensure the instruction to weaken the Birds and Habitats Directives is replaced with an instruction to strongly implement nature conservation. Parliament must also hold the Commission to account in continuing to protect people’s health by strengthening, not weakening, key legislation on air quality and chemicals, and move the responsibility for biocides and pesticides back to the commission department responsible for environment.

4. Resolve potential conflicts of interest for the nominees, and notably for the Climate and Energy portfolio. Juncker’s decision to pick a Climate and Energy Commissioner with well-known links to the oil industry adds a great deal of fuel to his bonfire. •

 

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