With a change at the top, what’s next for the EU’s Green Deal?

AUTHORS: David Baldock and Nicolas Woo-Canal

Frans Timermans, who has been in a key leadership position regarding the EU’s  game changing European Green Deal, resigned at fairly short notice last month from his roles in the European Commission to become the Dutch Green-Labour alliance’s candidate for prime minister of the Netherlands in the coming election. The commission’s President, Ursula von der Leyen, needed to move quickly to replace him as both the commissioner for climate action and executive vice-president for the European Green Deal.

Timmermans, leading on the Green Deal within the commission since it was adopted in 2020 and a driving force on many strategic measures, such as the EU’s ‘Fit for 55 ‘package of climate policies for 2030, has been a high profile, enthusiastic and sometimes combative advocate for change. He has now been replaced by Maroš Šefčovič, a highly experienced Slovak commissioner who has had a number of different roles in the past, including four years in charge of energy policy. Since 2019, he has had a more cross-cutting portfolio, including relations with the European Parliament and a prominent role in the EU’s sometimes fraught, but currently calmer, relations with the UK after Brexit.  With this addition to his responsibilities Šefčovič now rejoices in the title of commission ‘vice-president for the European green deal, interinstitutional relations and foresight’.

The new Green Deal leader is a fixer

While Maroš Šefčovič’s background is not in the environmental world, the logic of his new position is clear and he has a strong reputation as a fixer. More controversial however will be the appointment of the next climate commissioner, which is less straightforward since it involves an incomer to the commission who needs to be approved by a two thirds majority in the European Parliament, which is not an automatic process.

The Dutch government has the right to put forward a candidate for the seat in the commission that Frans Timmermans has been occupying and they have chosen Wopke Hoekstra. He was foreign minister until very recently but has now been nominated for the climate commissioner role. Unlike Frans Timmermans, he is from the centre right, being leader of the Christian Democrat Appeal Party in the Netherlands, which is affiliated to the EPP (European People’s Party) bloc in the European Parliament, notable recently for their opposition to the draft Nature Restoration law amongst other Green Deal proposals.

Being climate commissioner is an important job with some immediate challenges. These include a crucial role in steering the commission’s proposals for the EU’s 2040 greenhouse gas emission reduction target, due for the first quarter of 2024 and planning for the COP28 meeting in Dubai before Christmas. Here, there will be critical issues on the table, including the defence of the 1.5oC target and the extent of funding being put on the table by richer countries to support the Global South.

Designate Commissioner Hoekstra has no track record in climate policy or climate diplomacy at the global level and his background is in management consultancy and the oil business, having worked for Shell. This has led to concerns being expressed by some, including the ‘G010‘ green NGO coalition in Brussels, about his suitability for the role. Opposition to his appointment in the parliament may not amount to much in the end but Pascal Canfin, chair of the Environment Committee, has said it is not a “done deal”.

Is the Green Deal in safe hands?

While the importance of individual personalities can be difficult to forecast and highly effective commissioners have sometimes emerged from unexpected political backgrounds, the need to make progress on the weighty Green Deal portfolio before the European elections in May 2024 is crystal clear.

If the process of adoption falters at this stage the effectiveness of the whole package could be seriously damaged. A batch of more than 30 major proposals are making their way through the EU decision making process and need to be finalised by early in the new year if possible. They cover a large range of subjects, including air pollution, critical raw materials, batteries, the circular economy and energy efficiency standards for buildings. Some, such as the Nature Restoration law and proposals to reduce the use of pesticides, are encountering significant political push back, and difficult negotiations lie ahead.

Others have general support but are subject to scrutiny and negotiation over specific elements and details. A few proposals have been published only recently and debate has scarcely started. The proposed new Soil Monitoring law for example was only published in July, although a timetable for debates in the parliament is already in place thanks to an enthusiastic rapporteur. (The previous major initiative by the commission on this topic was for a Soil Framework Directive in 2006, blocked by the UK, Germany and others, but the prospects look better this time, not least because of the UK’s absence from the table).

Finally, there are some expected Green Deal proposals that have yet to appear and are now in question, the Sustainable Food Systems framework law being a prominent example.

By any standards this is a serious programme for advancing towards climate neutrality, greening the economy, reducing pollution and tackling some of the most contentious challenges in the countryside. It is more impressive still when viewed from the UK where the strategic sweep of the Green Deal vision is absent, and the proposals are mixed, even regressive in some cases.

Considerable political skill will be needed to secure agreement on the outstanding Green Deal dossiers by the spring. Ursula von der Leyen is now framing the Green Deal as a pivotal economic strategy for the coming years while both talking up the importance of nature and trying to placate farmers. The climate and resource management dimensions of the package look on stronger ground than progressing food and animal welfare legislation where the Commission may draw back. Nonetheless, von der Leyen’s appointment letter to Maroš Šefčovič clearly specifies that he will be responsible for “bringing the European Green Deal to the next level with the ambition that it requires and for accelerating its concrete roll-out as Europe’s growth strategy.”

A similar instruction to British ministers would be refreshing.

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