Juuso Järviniemi reviews Frans Timmermans’ recent appearance at European Parliament hearings for the Commissioner nominees and asks if he is the right man for the “European Green Deal”.
One of the most recognisable faces in the European Commission is Frans Timmermans, the bald socialist who took a tough stance on Poland’s rule of law breaches in the outgoing Commission’s tenure. Though he failed to be elected Commission President, he is set to stay near the top for another five years. As one of the ‘Executive Vice Presidents’ in Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission, Timmermans will be tasked with turning the “European Green Deal” from words into reality.
On Tuesday, Timmermans easily handled a three-hour hearing in front of the European Parliament which has to vote on his nomination. The Dutchman pledges the Commission will be ambitious on climate, but at the same time the “European Green Deal” mainly builds on existing EU policies, rather than precipitating any climate revolution.
In line with President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s July speech to the European Parliament, Timmermans promised to present new climate plans within his first 100 days in office – that is, by 9 March next year. As arguably should be the case, Timmermans’ headline ideas were the same as von der Leyen’s.
The new Commission wants to nail down in law the EU’s target of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. The idea is to reverse-engineer the target to define the next steps each EU member state should take, and then enforce the law. Timmermans and von der Leyen want to bring the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions down by 50%, or more likely by 55%, by 2030, as opposed to the current 40% target. In a world of climate targets, binding legislation to ensure states comply is something that only the EU can offer. In this sense, by legislating on the 2050 target, the EU is simply playing to its strengths.
Another high-profile promise Timmermans made was to include the maritime sector in the EU’s hallmark Emissions Trading Scheme, to address cruise ships’ polluting ports by ‘burning the most horrible stuff’. In his opening statement, Timmermans also brought up energy efficiency, another familiar theme in EU environmental action. Demanding other world powers to do their part, as the EU has done with the Mercosur trade deal, came up as another prominent theme, and countered conservative MEPs’ complaints that other parts of the world aren’t doing enough about climate.
Consistency across the board
As the environment is an issue that cuts across various policy fields, the question of all Commissioners pulling in the same direction came up several times. Timmermans spoke about a new ‘Farm to Fork Initiative’, which provoked a question on how exactly this would tie with the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Though the answer was somewhat ambiguous, the uniting theme seems to be sustainable farming and food production in Europe – a topic that itself connects with the EU’s combat against deforestation.
In agriculture, Timmermans’ closest partner would be the incoming Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, a Pole who was only narrowly accepted by the European Parliament after a second hearing.
If Timmermans has gained notoriety in Poland in his current rule of law job, he might not be the Polish government’s best friend in the 2019–2024 Commission either. Namely, Poland is famous for its continued dependence on coal. On Tuesday, especially the centre-right European People’s Party was pressing Timmermans on how he will support regions that have to bear the costs of Europe’s big climate transition, like Poland’s Silesia. If the EU can’t muster enough money for its “Just Transition Fund” designed to help these areas, Timmermans is liable to be treated as the culprit.
To get the money together, Timmermans has to get other Commissioners, including the Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis who holds the biggest economic portfolio in the team, to pull in the same direction. Like with the “Juncker Plan” in the past five years, the idea would be to bring in both public and private money: a tried and tested idea, but this time applied for the purpose of climate.
Timmermans is confident that the Commission has its eyes on a common goal, and says that one of his key tasks is to remove any inconsistencies within the Commission that might hinder climate action. However, the financial side – just like the goal to hammer the 2050 climate legislation through the Council of Ministers – will also require bringing the member states on board.
During the hearing, the Swedish MEP Jytte Guteland implored Timmermans to ‘be a Greta Thunberg towards the rest of the Commission’. Timmermans rather wants to tighten the screw on existing climate action and to bring a climate focus into new areas, as opposed to overturning the whole system. Even then, however, he will have to work hard to convince recalcitrant governments to cooperate. But if that takes memorable Greta Thunberg-esque speeches, then the charismatic Dutchman is probably the right person for the job.