Launched with much fanfare in 2019 as the EU’s new growth strategy, the European Green Deal has now ground to a halt, signalling difficult months ahead for Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who is entering the final year of her mandate.
On Tuesday, the two candidates nominated to share the Green Deal and climate portfolios – Maroš Šefčovič and Wopke Hoekstra – failed to win the two-thirds majority they needed to be confirmed in their respective roles.
To get the Parliament’s approval, both candidates needed the support of at least four political parties.
Assuming Šefčovič and Hoekstra got backing from their respective camps – the left-wing Socialists and Democrats (S&D) and right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) – the swing votes were held by the remaining political groups: the Greens, the centrists (Renew) and the ultraconservative ECR.
And, unexpectedly, it was the performance of the left-wing Šefčovič, which seemed to be the deal-breaker for the Greens, who pulled the plug on the negotiations and requested both candidates to provide additional details in writing to their questions.
“Šefčovič, much like Hoekstra, has only offered scant details, which was a disappointing surprise,” said Michael Bloss, speaking on behalf of the Greens in Parliament. “Being responsible for the Green Deal is no side gig; it’s the central agenda of this Commission, and there’s much work ahead,” Bloss said in a statement.
The Green’s decision to deny their support left the nationalist ECR group as the unlikely kingmakers for the two candidates, but they preferred siding with the sceptics and refused to give their support either.
The rejection of the two Commission nominees is the latest twist in a saga that has seen growing political acrimony around the European Green Deal in recent months.
The EPP fired the first shot earlier this year when they mounted a coordinated attack against the EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law, saying it would hit food production and pile up bureaucracy on European farmers.
Even though their bid was defeated, the move signalled a lurch to the right from the EPP, which appeared to fish for conservative votes ahead of next June’s European elections.
But Tuesday’s rejection is also a personal setback for Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.
Hoekstra’s appointment has been mired in political intrigue from the start, when the Commission President asked caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to put forward a conservative candidate from the EPP to replace the outgoing socialist Frans Timmermans.
Timmermans was the number two of the European Commission, where he was simultaneously climate commissioner and vice-president for the European Green Deal.
By offering the climate portfolio to the EPP, von der Leyen made a gesture to her own political family, potentially setting herself up for a second mandate at the Commission’s helm following next year’s European elections.
But in doing so, she also fundamentally altered the political balance of the Commission, which until now was a careful assemblage of politicians from her own centre-right family (the EPP), social democrats (S&D), liberals (Renew), and Greens.
“The choice of Mrs von der Leyen is to seek the support of the EPP in the European Parliament by appointing a climate commissioner from their own ranks,” said Pascal Canfin, the chairman of the Parliament’s environment committee, who presided over this week’s hearings.
“I can understand that,” he told Euractiv in an interview before the hearings took place. “But why should I, a centrist, vote for a climate commissioner from the EPP, when part of the EPP is trying to scupper the Green Deal?”
The first culprit, it must be said, is Timmermans himself, who quit his European Commission job at the end of August to run as a Green-Socialist candidate in the Dutch election in November.
But von der Leyen is also clearly responsible for upsetting the political balance of the Commission, which reflected the political majorities in the European Parliament after the 2019 EU election.
“It was her who asked Rutte to put forward a candidate from the EPP, when she could have chosen someone from the centre,” Canfin quipped.
After Tuesday’s rejection, MEPs asked the two candidates to provide more detail and a clear timeline in writing on upcoming legislative proposals expected to come out of the European Commission before the end of its mandate, on 31 October 2024.
Those include several key environmental laws the Commission has yet to adopt, such as the revision of the REACH chemical regulation and new legislation on animal welfare.
“We know that these proposals are technically ready”, Canfin said on Tuesday after the hearing of Maroš Šefčovič. “The decision in the end is mainly in President von der Leyen’s hands. Now it’s up to her to tell us what she wants to keep on delivering on some Green Deal files,” said Canfin.
With Timmermans gone, it’s von der Leyen herself now who is finding herself in the Green Deal hot seat.
I hope that the end of all events will end in a good result. Because protecting the environment is a very important issue.