By James Nix.
A 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.
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.