European Parliament committee withholds approval for new EU green policy chiefs

Nominations are likely to move ahead before Cop28, says committee chair

The European Parliament in Brussels. The shake-up in Europe's green leadership comes as climate policies face mounting pushback from politicians. Reuters
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The European Parliament's environment committee on Tuesday declined to accept the two nominees to lead Europe's climate agenda, demanding more details on how they would take forward green policies.

Dutch politician Wopke Hoekstra, nominee for the EU's next head of climate change policy, and Maros Sefcovic, the EU Commissioner in line to take over co-ordination of green policies, each failed to win approval from the committee after hours-long hearings.

They were questioned about their climate track record and disputed past statements, with Mr Sefcovic repeatedly asked to distance himself from the recent pro-Kremlin winner of a general election in his home country Slovakia.

Mr Hoekstra's credibility as an international climate negotiator was put in doubt due to past employment at oil company Shell and policy decisions made during his tenure as finance and foreign affairs minister of The Netherlands.

"We knew from the very beginning that the two positions were de facto connected and linked because we need a broad political agreement," committee chair Pascal Canfin told reporters in Strasbourg.

But Mr Canfin highlighted that the co-ordinators "want to solve this issue way before Cop28" – the international UN climate negotiations scheduled to take place in Dubai in late November.

Both candidates have received a letter with eight questions each that they have to answer before 7am on Wednesday morning.

The committee's seven co-ordinators, who represent each a different political group, will examine the responses and – if at least two-thirds are satisfied with the answers – a plenary vote will take place on Thursday during which the outcome is highly likely to be positive.

If the committee fails to agree again, then it would meet again at the next Strasbourg plenary session in mid-October and the threshold would be lowered to a simple majority.

Asked by The National whether this meant that Mr Hoekstra would be absent from Cop28, Mr Canfin said this is "not the most likely scenario".

Mr Canfin said that he had expected Mr Hoekstra to give more details about how the bloc will achieve its 2040 climate targets, including reducing emissions by more than 90 per cent.

Official advisers to the EU said in July that this would require a massive scale up of renewable energy, a shift to electrify polluting industries, and replacing fossil fuels with alternatives like hydrogen.

During his hearing on Monday evening, Mr Hoekstra said he would “use all instruments available" to achieve the 90 per cent goal and warned that the EU would have to spend more money than expected.

But some MEPs were sceptical of his promises because of past statements made during the Covid-19 crisis during which he called for investigations into Spain's finances due to its lack of budgetary capacity to deal with the pandemic.

They also brought up the Dutch government's financial support of flagship airline KLM during his tenure as finance minister as contradictory with his newfound ambition to eradicate fossil fuels.

Mr Sefcovic, meanwhile, was widely viewed as having not given enough details about how he would push forward the EU's green policies in a relatively short timeframe. The Commission's mandate ends next June with the European elections.

During his hearing, Mr Sefcovic declined to confirm when Brussels will move ahead with some promised green measures, including rules on harmful chemicals, raising concerns among some officials that they may be shelved.

"We are not convinced," German legislator Peter Liese said after his hearing on Tuesday morning.

Green MEP Michael Bloss told The National that Mr Sefcovic, who has been European Commission Vice President in charge of interinstitutional relations since 2019, was "not firm on some of the key Green Deal agenda points" and seemed to not realise the magnitude of his task.

It is not uncommon for commissioner-designates to be asked questions in writing after a hearing.

In November 2019, the foreign affairs committee asked commissioner-designate for neighbourhood and enlargement Oliver Varhelyi to answer additional written questions. He was then approved without need for a further hearing.

Only five commissioner-designates have withdrawn their candidacy after criticism from Parliament.

The shake-up in Europe's green leadership - prompted by former EU climate chief Frans Timmermans stepping down in August - comes as climate policies face mounting pushback from politicians warning of the upfront costs of shifting away from planet-heating fossil fuels.

Updated: October 03, 2023, 6:40 PM