The Commissioners steering Europe’s Green Deal

Published by Kayle Crosson on

September 16th, 2019

Last week, the new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen outlined her nominees for Commissioners, many of whom are tasked with addressing the climate crisis. 

Ms von der Leyen has promised to present a European Green Deal within the first 100 days of taking office on 1 November. The policy, she hopes, will become a “European hallmark”. 

It will require coordination across a broad portfolio of departments, all of which is almost certain to be overseen by the proposed Executive Vice President, Frans Timmersman. 

So what are the track records and backgrounds of those set to manage one of the greatest existential threats facing the continent? Kayle Crosson decided to find out. 

European Election night 2019 Photo: European Union / Bauweraerts Didier

Frans Timmersman 

Socialists and Democrats member and Frans Timmersman was a former Dutch minister for European and Foreign Affairs before he joined the European Commission in 2014. 

In the last Commission, he served as the First Vice President under current President Jean Claude Juncker, and if approved as Executive Vice President, he will oversee the European Green Deal and climate policy of the bloc. 

In his previous role, he was responsible for the EU’s commitment to the UN’s 2030 Agenda and the sustainable development goals.

Timmersman has previously expressed support of a continent-wide kerosene tax on the aviation industry as jet fuel remains tax-exempt despite the industry’s impact on the environment. 

He has also backed a wider carbon tax, but according to EurActiv has failed to elaborate on how he would do so. 

Earlier this year, he also expressed the need for a shared “shouldering of costs” in fighting climate change in response to the gilets jaunes movement in France that formed in response to a proposed increase in fuel tax. 

However, his climate record has some blemishes. Up until now, Timmersman has avoided publicly declaring support for the EU’s overall 2030 emission reduction target of 40 per cent.

Proposals put forward on air quality and circular economy under Timmersman’s supervision took a long time to be pushed through, and he previously said that legislation to reduce plastic bag use is “overregulation”. 

Timmersman may also face a struggle to bring Poland and Hungary – two of only four member states that oppose the 2050 carbon neutrality target – along for the climate ride.

In the preceding Commission, Timmermans confronted them over the rule of law in both states, a move that greatly angered Polish and Hungarian officials. 

Press conference of Phil Hogan, Member of the EC in charge of Agriculture and Rural Development, on the Common Agricultural Policy after 2020.
Press conference of Phil Hogan, Member of the EC in charge of Agriculture and Rural Development, on the Common Agricultural Policy after 2020 Photo: European Union

Phil Hogan 

The current Commissioner for Agriculture is nominated to oversee trade in the new Commission and will take on an important, and likely controversial, climate policy brief going forward – that of designing and introducing a carbon border tax. 

The tax, proposed by the incoming President in her climate plan, would be levied on goods and services from countries which do not put an equivalent price on carbon to that set by the EU.

Before making a moving to the mainland continent, Hogan was the Minister for the Environment in Ireland and had several problematic moments in the role. 

In 2011 he announced that policy moves would be prioritised over a proposed climate change Bill, a notable reversal on the then-government’s commitment to delivering climate legislation by 2012. 

At the time of the announcement, he sought concessions for the agricultural sector, stating that climate change concerns had to find equilibrium with food security in the face of a growing global population. 

Two years later, Hogan said that the Government would not go ahead with a packaging levy nor would they pursue a container deposit and return scheme, once again backtracking on a previous Government commitment. 

As Trade Commissioner, he would have to deal with the ongoing trade deal between the EU and the South American trading bloc Mercosur. 

Mr Hogan is a strong proponent of the controversial deal that the Irish Farmers’ Association has referred to it as “a sell-out” as low tariffs on imported beef would be “devastating” for Irish farmers. 

In the past month, record levels of wildfires broke out in the Amazon rainforest, with many attributing the blaze to the agri-business disposition of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. 

Last month, the Taoiseach warned that Ireland would vote against the deal if Brazil continued to backslide on its conservation of the forest. 

In an opinion piece published this summer in The Independent, Mr Hogan wrote that the agreement is a way to open markets with “trading partners who respect and meet our standards and rules”. 

He said that he appreciated the “genuine concerns” about environmental impacts of the deal, and stressed that the agreement includes binding commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. 

However, President Bolsonaro campaigned on a promise to leave the landmark international agreement. 

Virginijus Sinkevičius

If approved by the European Parliament, Lithuania’s Virginijus Sinkevičius, at just 28 years old, will become the youngest of Ms von der Leyen’s team as Commissioner for Environment and Oceans. 

Mr Sinkevičius is a member of the Farmers and Greens Party (LVZS) that sits within the Greens/European Free Alliance group. LVZS’ own socio-economic policy, however, is notably to the right of other green parties in the country. 

His responsibilities will include overseeing the new circular economy action plan, ensuring that Europe’s fisheries sector are an integral part of the European Green Deal, addressing microplastics pollution, and enhancing marine biodiversity. 

While he may have a more self-sufficient approach to fisheries, EurActiv reports that his mandate could be considered a continuation of European actions over the past 10 years. 

Taking a parliamentary seat in Lithuania in 2016 for the first time, some critics argue he is too inexperienced for such high-level responsibility.

Politico’s analysis noted that it remains to be seen if mainstream European Green officials will support him. 

Politico also reported that Sinkevičius is known to keep a “Make America Great Again” hat in his office, the signature slogan of Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. 

Janus WOJCIECHOWSKI in the European parliament Photo: Alexis HAULOT / EU
Janus WOJCIECHOWSKI in the European parliament Photo: Alexis HAULOT / EU

Janusz Wojciechowski 

Polish European Court Auditor Janusz Wojciechowski will take over for Phil Hogan as the Commissioner for Agriculture during a crucial time of Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform. 

Ms von der Leyen has asked him to “swiftly conclude” negotiations on a modern and simplified CAP for the post-2020 period as well as contributing to the new “Farm to Fork” strategy for sustainable food. 

Mr Wojciechowski has over a decade of experience in European politics and previously served as vice-chairperson of the European Parliament Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development. 

While initially in the majority-holding European People’s Party in the European Parliament, he left the party to join the Union for Europe and the Nations, a political group that is further to the right and notably Eurosceptic. 

Mr Wojciechowski is also currently under investigation in relation to an ongoing anti-fraud investigation. He has insisted that he has “clean hands and a clean conscience” in regards to alleged irregularities in travel expenses from 2004 to 2014. 

Rovana Plumb  Photo: Dominique HOMMEL / EU

Rovana Plumb 

The Romanian nominee for Transport Commissioner is Rovana Plumb, a seasoned national and European politician. 

A current member and vice president of the Social Democratic Party, she has previously served as Romania’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Minister of Labour, and Minister of European Funds. 

Ms Plumb will oversee a strategy for sustainable and smart mobility and the extension of the Emissions Trading System to the maritime sector.

Ms von der Leyen has also asked Ms Plumb to play a “lead role” in international forums addressing global emission reduction within the aviation and maritime transport sectors. 

She is reported to be close to Liviu Dragnea, the former leader of the governing Social Democratic Party, imprisoned in May in a case involving fabricated jobs for party workers. 

Gabriel Paun of Agent Green, a Romanian environmental NGO, said that two previous dealings he had with Ms. Plumb as Minister of the Environment in 2011 and 2012 on the topic of GMOs and forests were both “negative experiences”. 

Kadri Simson as Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure in Estonia Photo: Annika Haas (EU2017EE)
Kadri Simson as Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure in Estonia Photo: Annika Haas (EU2017EE)

Kadri Simson 

Former Economic Minister Kadri Simson will oversee Energy in the European Commission, and will play a central role in meeting Europe’s aim of reducing emissions by at least 50 per cent for 2030.

As energy production and use accounts for 75 per cent of the EU’s emissions, energy will be front and centre in addressing the challenge. 

Ms Simson has been in politics since the age of 18, and previously told ERR that Ms von der Leyen had promised her an economic affairs role.

Peep Mardiste of the Estonian Green Movement said he could “hardly ever recall her using the word ‘environment’ in her speeches, interviews or political debates.” Ms Simson’s own party also recently blocked the EU 2050 climate neutrality initiative. 

“Her background and actions so far are not that impressive for [the] environmental community but we do understand that she has no option but to support climate initiatives that von der Leyen promised during her confirmation process at the European Parliament,” Mr Mardiste told The Green News. 

Ms von der Leyen has asked Ms Simson to work closely with Member States on their National Energy and Climate Plans to ensure that countries in the bloc follow the “energy-efficiency-first” principle across the board. 

In her mission letter to Ms Simson, Ms von der Leyen notes that “gas will have a role to play in the transition towards a carbon-neutral economy” and instructs Ms Simson to make full use of the potential for liquefied natural gas (LNG). 

A report earlier this year from Oil Change International said that gas is not a viable bridge fuel in a transition to a green economy, and went so far as to call it a “bridge to climate disaster”. 

Ms Simson will also have to confront the practice of fracking in EU member states such as Romania as well as address biomass energy that currently makes up 60 per cent of the bloc’s renewable energy portfolio. 

A group of plaintiffs from EU member states and the US filed a lawsuit in March against the EU to challenge the inclusion of forest biomass as effectively carbon neutral in its revamped renewable energy directive. 

The group has put forward the argument that EU institutions have failed to recognize the negative climate impacts of forest biomass harvesting and combustion for energy purposes. 

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Kayle Crosson

Kayle is a multimedia journalist focused on climate and environmental issues and contributes to The Irish Times and The Green News.