The von der Leyen Commission: First reactions on its priorities

Martin Nesbit is a Senior Fellow and Head of Climate and Environmental Governance Programme at IEEP

Things have moved a long way in 5 years – at least, in terms of the environment’s place in EU policymaking.

When Jean-Claude Juncker presented his priorities and allocated portfolios to his new Commission in 2014, many observers voiced concerns about what they saw as backward steps on environmental and sustainability issues  (no reference to the SDGs; withdrawal of the circular economy and air quality packages; and an absence of ambition on the environment, except where renewable energy was considered to contribute to growth).

Ursula von der Leyen has confidently avoided those missteps. Instead, her allocation of portfolios – and the mission letters she has written to Commissioners – place a lot of emphasis on environment and sustainability issues. This partly reflects the EU election campaign, which was characterised by an uptick in climate commitments (see our analysis of the manifestos), and the impact of young voters and school strikers on public debate. Those factors were already visible in the political priorities von der Leyen presented to the European Parliament, with their commitments to climate-neutrality and a Green New Deal – and, in some cases, the mission letters put further flesh on the bones.

Mostly, the signs are positive, but with a few worrying aspects.

Let’s start with Climate. Perhaps the key point here is that the Climate portfolio has been given to the senior Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, as part of his responsibility for the European Green Deal. Giving the Vice-Presidents their own DGs looks like a step in the right direction; and will mean that the influence of the Climate DG in the Commission should grow. Von der Leyen has asked Timmermans to bring forward legislation to embed the climate-neutrality commitment (for 2050 – although there will be scope for legislators to be more ambitious on that date). She has also asked for more ambitious 2030 targets, and has given Timmermans the job of leading international negotiations.

As Vice-President, Timmermans also has the role of coordinating work on energy taxation, the circular economy, the new ‘farm to fork’ strategy for sustainable food, biodiversity protection, and a new (and as yet hazy) “zero-pollution” commitment. The fact that a wide range of environmental issues are brought together under a single Vice-President looks like good news for their visibility and coherence. Let’s wait to see whether the ambition in proposals lives up to the expectations. 

Energy has been split off from climate, moving away from the unwieldy breadth of the portfolio of Miguel Arias Cañete in the current Commission. The new Commissioner, Estonian Kadri Simson, has a set of instructions largely focused on decarbonisation, including an important emphasis on energy efficiency, and instructions to look for ways of making progress through the clauses in the Treaties that allow majority voting on energy issues.

These look like positive elements, provided the split in responsibilities from climate change does not lead to an excessive focus on security of supply rather than decarbonisation.  A worrying hint here is the focus on gas, and “making full use of the potential of affordable liquefied natural gas”. If this translates into a willingness to increase imports from the US – including from fracking operations – it will run directly counter to increased climate ambition. A further worrying aspect of the portfolio is that Simson seems to have been given exclusive responsibility for working with Member States on their National Energy and Climate Plans – although there are clearly aspects which need ambitious treatment in the NECPs, particularly transport, agriculture and land use, which are the responsibility of other Commissioners and their services. 

New Environment and Oceans Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, from Lithuania, has been given essentially the same portfolio as outgoing Commissioner Karmenu Vella – although there is (at least) symbolism in its new title’s reference to “Oceans”, rather than “Maritime Affairs and Fisheries”. And rather than the almost exclusive focus on implementing the existing acquis that was given to Vella, there are a number of areas where new initiatives are called for – including a new biodiversity strategy, an ambitious agreement at the Beijing Biodiversity Conference next year, a new circular economy action plan, the “zero-pollution” ambition for air and water quality and dangerous chemicals; as well as a slightly vague commitment to “lead efforts towards plastic-free oceans”. Sinkevičius’s “Oceans” responsibilities have a firm focus on respecting maximum sustainable yield and enforcement – a critical issue here will be how much Member States can be persuaded to support Commission efforts.

A range of other Commissioners have also been given responsibilities relevant to the environment and climate change – and in some cases it is too soon to tell if this is a good thing (ensuring the whole Commission has a focus on delivering environmental ambition) or a bad thing (sectoral commissioners proving less willing to emphasise environmental ambition over the views of incumbent stakeholders). Three examples:

  • New agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, from Poland, has been asked to ensure that the new CAP is “ambitious in  terms  of  food  security  and  environmental  and climate  objectives”. The stress on environmental objectives is welcome, but the food security mention suggests a potentially conflicting productivist agenda. There is also a lot of emphasis on it incentivising the uptake of digital technologies, and ensuring sectoral competitiveness. However, the lead on the development of the new Farm to Fork sustainable food strategy promised in von der Leyen’s political guidelines has been given to the new Health Commissioner, Cypriot Stella Kyriakides. Many commissioners, including Wojciechowski and Sinkevičius, have been instructed to contribute to it, but there is surprisingly no emphasis on the role of the CAP in its development. It will be interesting to see if this means that the strategy ends up with a focus on food safety; or whether it can place enough emphasis on the key issue of reducing environmental impacts from the EU’s food consumption and production.
  • The new Commission will have a fresh ambition to apply carbon pricing through the Emissions Trading System to transport – particularly air and maritime. The lead responsibility on this has been given to the new Transport Commissioner, Romanian Rovana Plumb, rather than to Frans Timmermans (as the climate commissioner with overall responsibility for the ETS). In practice, Plumb and Timmermans will have to work together; but there is a risk that industry interests will be given more emphasis under this arrangement. It is encouraging, however, to see that Commissioner Plumb has been asked to take a lead role in international negotiations on maritime (IMO) and aviation (ICAO) issues. It would have been even more encouraging if it had been made clearer that her role will be focused on securing greater climate ambition.
  • The lead on the eye-catching proposal in the political guidelines to develop a new Carbon Border Tax has been given to new Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. In some ways this is a disturbing sign that the Border Tax is seen as a tool of economic policy, rather than about decarbonisation – and there are also hints on this in the frequent references in the guidelines and in the mission letters to European firms being able to “compete on a level playing field”. The risk is that the inevitable difficulties in developing a Carbon Border Tax become an alibi for EU incumbents in polluting industries, who will lobby for more adequate emissions limits to be put on hold until they have a “level playing field”. On the bright side, Gentiloni has a long history of environmental engagement, including with Legambiente; and is plenty smart enough to be alert to these risks.

Finally, each of the mission letters to the Commissioners starts with a set of instructions on how the Commission will work, including some cross-cutting principles and priorities. Because these generic bits of text are repeated in all the letters, it is easy to skip over them. But the principles outlined will matter in practice.

And here there are two welcome aspects – and one very concerning one.

The welcome elements start with a commitment that each Commissioner will ensure the delivery of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in their policy area, and that the Commission as a whole will be responsible for their overall implementation. It is not yet clear what this will mean in practice, but we hope it will mean a much more rigorous approach to monitoring and implementation of the SDGs (see our recommendations on this).

It is also good to see a focus on the application and enforcement of EU law; including through support to Member States, but also swift action if legislation is breached. In the environment area, this means we can expect to see a continuation of the previous Commission’s welcome focus on improved implementation – but this time, alongside (rather than instead of) a more ambitious forward-looking programme.

The more worrying aspect is the adoption of a rigid and largely discredited approach to tackling administrative burdens used in the UK and under the Trump administration in the US. “The Commission will develop a new instrument to deliver on a ‘One In, One Out’ principle. Every legislative proposal creating new burdens should relieve people and businesses of an equivalent existing burden at EU level in the same policy area.” Instead of judging each proposal on its merits, individual Commissioners will thus be forced to consider what other bits of their regulatory armoury can be jettisoned. That may work in some areas, where a largely static issue is being regulated; but in new areas of policy, or in areas – like climate and the environment – where there is a consensus that current measures are not doing enough, it simply doesn’t. Instead, it risks encouraging Commission services to deliberately underestimate impacts, and it seriously risks getting in the way of the ambitions von der Leyen has set out on the environment.

So, things have certainly moved on in terms of language, and headline priorities, from where we were five years ago. In the meantime, of course, things have also moved on in terms of cumulative emissions, habitat loss, and the human footprint on our planet, which means that there is now greater urgency in tackling those problems. It will be important for the new Commissioners to ensure that they deliver on the high-level ambition, and don’t allow lobbying from incumbent industries on the “level playing field”, or arbitrary rules on burdens, to slow them down. 

Martin Nesbit
Climate and Environmental Governance Programme