In November, Ursula von der Leyen is due to take over from Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the European Commission. In mid-September, the German Christian Democrat unveiled the team she hopes to lead for the next five years. Each Member State is entitled to put forward one commissioner, meaning the college will be made up of 27 members including the president. The UK will not be represented in light of its imminent withdrawal from the Union.
In her address to the European Parliament, von der Leyen promised to make climate action a key priority as part of her plans for a “European Green Deal”. This is reflected in the planned structure of her Commission: three executive vice-presidents will double as commissioners, overseeing key issues in a coordinating role: Frans Timmermans (climate action) from the Netherlands will be responsible for the Green Deal, Margrethe Vestager (competition) from Denmark for digitalisation, and the Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis (financial services) for the social market economy.
All three already serve on the European Commission, while Timmermans (a Social Democrat) and Vestager (a Liberal) were both in the running to succeed Juncker. The responsibilities assigned to Timmermans illustrate the fundamental shift undertaken by von der Leyen, which she has said was inspired by voters’ wishes and the recent youth climate protests. Under Juncker, vice-president Maroš Šefčovič was in charge of the Energy Union, a hierarchical rung above climate commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete.
Now, the tables are turned: the energy portfolio, subordinate to Timmermans, will go to former economics minister of Estonia Kadri Simson. The broader powers granted to the climate commissioner constitute a “real opportunity to increase climate action in all sectors of the economy,” remarked Wendel Trio of the environmental body Climate Action Network Europe.
A challenging mission
Each of the incoming commission members received a “mission letter” from von der Leyen. In her message to Timmermans, she tasked him with initiating a climate law codifying a commitment to climate neutrality by 2050 in his first 100 days in office, and raising the current carbon reduction target for 2030 from 40 to at least 50 percent. Both issues have been a source of contention among Member States to date, primarily due to resistance from several Eastern European countries. Winning them over will be the first major challenge faced by Timmermans: for certain governments in Eastern Europe, he has been persona non grata since clashing with them in his previous capacity as commissioner for the rule of law.
Next year, a more ambitious 2030 climate target is due under the Paris agreement. Von der Leyen has vowed to increase the commitment to 55 percent in 2021 – but first, Timmermans will negotiate bolstered targets with other major emitters. As the leading Social Democrat candidate, in his own campaign for the top job Timmermans had promised to bring the targets into line with climate science findings, which he took to mean a climate-neutral Europe by 2050 at the latest. However, there is intense debate over whether this is in fact enough: according to Climate Action Network, for instance, the cutoff for climate neutrality is 2040.
Bringing the targets to fruition is the responsibility of the various commission members under Timmermans. Simson is tasked with ensuring sufficient ambition on the expansion of renewables and energy saving measures in the Member States’ National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs). The quest for emissions reductions will also include the transport sector, with plans to intensify the scope of emissions trading for shipping and aviation.
The transport portfolio was originally assigned to the Social Democrat Rovana Plumb, but the Romanian was turned down by the European Parliament over corruption charges. Whom Romania will send to Brussels in her stead was not yet known at the time of going to press, but likely candidates include MEP Dan Nica and secretary of state for European affairs Melania-Gabriela Ciot. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Romanian government was voted out of office by the country’s parliament in mid-October.
The agriculture portfolio, and with it the key task of reforming European farming subsidies, will be led by the conservative Polish politician Janusz Wojciechowski. Other environmental issues such as biodiversity and microplastics will be the remit of Lithuanian Virginijus Sinkevičius, currently his country’s economics minister. The Green Deal will also involve other portfolios: trade commissioner Phil Hogan (Ireland), for instance, is tasked with negotiating climate and environmental standards in trade deals, and drawing up plans for a border tax to ensure carbon pricing does not unfairly disadvantage European companies.
The Directorate-General for Competition is traditionally involved in all issues relating to national funding systems. EU guidelines for energy taxes are to be made more climate-friendly; in addition, von der Leyen plans to substantially increase investment in climate action, overhauling the European Investment Bank to this end.
The European Environmental Bureau, an umbrella association for European environmental bodies, has expressed cautious optimism over the Green Deal and Timmermans’ role, highlighting the importance of the next five years. However, the Bureau’s secretary general Jeremy Wates voiced concerns that none of the new candidates brings particularly “green” qualifications to the table. After the hearings, the European Parliament will vote on the new college of commissioners, which can only be confirmed or rejected as a whole.