The PSI Blog

The Juncker Commission: what does it mean for sustainability?
Ben Fagan-Watson

Jean-Claude Juncker

A new group of European Commissioners, under the presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker, came into office on 1 November. The Commission is one of seven principal decision-making bodies of the EU and acts as the executive, taking charge of day-to-day affairs, proposing legislation and ensuring that EU directives are implemented. Each ‘Directorate-General’ is run by a Commissioner, and the Commission is also staffed by the EU equivalent of the civil service (there are 23,000 members of staff working in the various departments - directorates-general or DGs - of the Commission). In reality, the Commission is one of three main decision-making bodies, alongside the Council of the European Union (the heads of national governments, also known as the Council of Ministers) and the European Parliament. There’s a beginner’s guide to the main EU institutions here.

For sustainability researchers, the big question is what kind of policies might be pursued by the new commission. On environmental issues, the new commission did not have the easiest of starts. Before the Juncker Commission came into office, it was announced that the Environment and Climate DGs would merge. There has been a mixed reaction to this move. Some see the merger as potentially downplaying the importance of green issues; 25 MEPs wrote a letter opposing the move. Others, like the French Greens, think there may be benefits to a larger, single DG working on the environment. However, the new DG will report to the new vice president for the Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič, rather than having a vice president of its own, which raises the possibility that issues of energy security – perhaps, for example, through support for fracking or Polish coal - will trump climate action in the future.

Miguel Aries Cañete

Another concern is the new commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, Miguel Aries Cañete, the nominee of Spain’s conservative Popular Party. According to one EU-watching website, EurActiv, in pre-appointment hearings, Cañete ‘ran into a barrage of criticism over past links with the oil industry and last-minute changes in his statement of financial interests’. Even after announcing that he had sold his investments in two oil companies (Petrologis Canarias and Ducor SL), and that his direct family no longer had any financial connection to the oil industry, eagle-eyed journalists noticed that Cañete’s brother-in-law is still on the board of both companies. Some green groups have argued that this compromises Cañete’s independence on climate issues.

Cañete - supported by the main conservative bloc, the EPP - was eventually appointed in a classic piece of EU horse-trading (described by the Guardian as a ‘Mexican stand-off’) in exchange for allowing the French Socialist finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, to take up the Economy portfolio on the Commission.

Corporate Europe Observatory, a transparency advocacy organisation, opposed the appointment of Cañete. ‘This is a man who has had a long career in public office but who has also enjoyed a long list of private interests’, said Vicky Cann of CEO. ‘For such an important EU role, and one which is likely to be the target of a lot of corporate lobbying, I think it is outrageous to appoint a former president of an oil company.’ Similar concerns were voiced by Michael Pidgeon, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth Europe, and Mahi Sideridou, the director of Greenpeace EU.

Juncker himself is under fire for a letter he wrote to the new commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Malta’s Karmenu Vella. In September, the Telegraph reported that Juncker seemed to be steering Vella towards a watering down of the regulations in the Birds and Habitats Directives. Indeed, appointing a Maltese politician for this post seems a little odd, given that Malta has been found to be in breach of the Birds directive for allowing its people to shoot protected species migrating over the islands during a hunting season each spring.

Many NGOs and other environmental observers have been alarmed by the changes at the Commission, seeing a downgrading of the importance of climate and environment issues. There are other, parallel processes going on at EU level, though, that go some way to mitigating these concerns. EU heads of state agreed new emissions and energy targets for 2030 in October, including a binding target of 40 per cent lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to 1990 levels, a binding target of 27 per cent of energy from renewables, and an ‘indicative’ target of 27 per cent energy efficiency. While many believe these targets are not ambitious enough, they are at least a step in the right direction and came in the face of trenchant opposition from coal-dependent Poland.

In terms of research, the Horizon 2020 programme already commits the EU to spending nearly €80 billion between now and 2020 on research and innovation, including a section of the ‘Societal Challenges’ work programme looking at ‘Climate Action, Environment, Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials’.

At the moment, it is difficult to tell how things will progress. For all of the criticism of Cañete, there is clearly an appetite for significant action on environmental issues among many policymakers in the EU. Much may depend on how the Paris climate talks in 2015 pan out. If the rest of the world decides to respond positively to Europe’s positive lead on the issue, then climate action will be reinforced. If the talks fail to reach an acceptable binding global agreement, then discontent about Europe ‘going alone’ on GHG reductions may turn into something much more serious for EU action on climate change and the environment more broadly. We will be observing these changes with interest, and will publish more in this blog as European policy debates progress.

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