European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday said that she had chosen Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Wopke Hoekstra to be the next commissioner in charge of climate action after the departure last week of fellow Dutch citizen and previous climate commissioner, Frans Timmermans.
Ms von der Leyen said after interviewing Mr Hoekstra that he had “shown strong motivation for the post and great commitment to the European Union”.
“He also has relevant professional experience for this post,” she continued.
“His governmental experience will be a strong asset in particular for Europe's climate diplomacy in the run-up to Cop28 and for climate finance, as well as for the implementation of climate-related legislative instruments.”
The European Parliament's environment committee must approve Ms von der Leyen's choice at a yet-to-be-determined date.
But it is likely to be a “tough hearing”, committee member Mohamed Chahim, a vice president of the socialists and democrats group in the European Parliament, told The National.
“Above all, I see a problem with his credibility, both inside and outside Europe,” said Mr Chahim, a Dutch politician, in an email.
Mr Hoekstra will have to distance himself from the strong opposition displayed this summer by his political group in the European Parliament, the European People's Party, to a flagship nature protection law supported by Mr Timmermans, said Mr Chahim.
“We want to see ambition,” he said.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggested Mr Hoekstra's name to fill a vacancy after the resignation of Mr Timmermans.
A socialist, Mr Timmermans, 62, was recently chosen to lead a joint Dutch green-socialist coalition in the hope of becoming the his country's next prime minister in an upcoming election.
Mr Chahim said that it was important that Mr Hoekstra demonstrate to the European Parliament that he is loyal “to European climate goals and social justice as the basis for all climate legislation”.
“He will have to do his best to show that he is fit for the job.”
Ms von der Leyen said that during the interview, Mr Hoekstra stressed “his commitment to continuing an ambitious climate policy and to maintaining a social balance in all necessary joint efforts on the road to climate neutrality”.
But Mr Hoekstra will have a lot of convincing to do – he must show, particularly to southern European lawmakers, that he has the right diplomatic and climate skills, said Pieter de Pous, programme lead at climate change think tank E3G’s fossil fuel transition project.
Mr Hoekstra became unpopular in Brussels after calling for an investigation into southern European countries' budgetary difficulties, prompting an angry reaction in March 2020 from Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, who described his comments as “repugnant” and contrary to the spirit of the EU.
“He’s mostly known for being a fiscal hawk and a very undiplomatic one,” Mr de Pous told The National.
“The question is: how hard are MEPs willing to play?”
Should he obtain parliament’s approval, Mr Hoekstra’s first big diplomatic test will be to negotiate on behalf of the EU at the next UN climate change conference, Cop28, in Dubai in November.
Mr Timmermans, his predecessor, was widely seen as a political heavyweight.
He is credited with pushing the EU to signal that it was open to a loss and damage fund at the previous Cop in Egypt.
Mr Chahim said it was unlikely that Mr Hoekstra would be able to pull off a similar feat, pointing to the fact that Dutch government, of which Mr Hoekstra was a member, was against a loss and damage fund at the time.
“He needs to convince other countries to be even more ambitious on climate policies, and I have doubts about that,” said Mr Chahim.
“We need an experienced negotiator at the upcoming Cop28, to make this climate summit a success.”
Citing unnamed sources, Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad has reported that the EPP pressured Ms von der Leyen, who is also affiliated with their group, to choose a climate commissioner that would not push for more tough environment rules.
Michael Bloss, a German MEP and a member of the Greens, told The National that Mr Hoekstra “has a lot to prove” but will hopefully follow in Mr Timmermans’ footsteps.
“The ex-commissioner already urged the EU to increase its climate ambition and we want his successor to deliver on that,” he said.
Following Mr Timmermans’ resignation, Ms von der Leyen had given the climate portfolio on a temporary basis to the commission's European Vice President for Institutional Relations Maros Sefcovic.
The Slovakian socialist politician was also promoted to executive vice president for the European Green Deal. Mr Hoekstra will work under his guidance, said Ms von der Leyen.
“We are not going to dilute our ambition,” Mr Sefcovic said in a joint media interview on Tuesday.
“What I believe is that we need to improve our communication and to be able to come faster, earlier and be more precise in our reactions to some of the natural worries which are there in some sectors.”