Janez Potočnik, the EU's commissioner-designate for environmental policy, won plaudits during a three-hour confirmation hearing in the European Parliament yesterday (13 January), proposing to set up an EU agency to ensure that the bloc's green legislation is properly enforced by member states.

Potočnik's hearing proceeded amid a relaxed atmosphere in the European Parliament's environment committee, with several of his answers followed by outbursts of applause.

The 51 year-old Slovenian was nevertheless keen to display modesty, saying he would applaud after his mandate.

Following "intensive Christmas reading" to get familiar with the EU's environment policies, Potočnik said he got "a lot on a radar".

He stressed that a holistic, cross-sectoral policy approach to the environment was needed inside the Commission, since many environmental issues overlap with the responsibilities of other commissioners.

Potočnik said he has already proposed "joint cabinet meetings" to ensure that environmental questions are considered horizontally.

Main policy drivers 

"Conserving the environment makes social, economic and business sense," Potočnik stressed, briefly outlining the main axes of his vision before a question-and-answer session.

He said resource efficiency, biodiversity and effective implementation of existing EU environmental legislation would be his main policy drivers. 

The commissioner-designate further pledged to bring environment not only higher on the political agenda but also "out of the shadow of climate change" as he said the two "go together".

Making environment, the economy go hand-in-hand

He also said he hoped his legacy in five years' time would include having made growth, jobs and environment go hand-in-hand. 

"By investing in the environment, we put jobs first," Potočnik said in remarks aimed at those who believe that environmental concerns should be put aside during the economic crisis. 

He also said he hoped to move away from mere environmental protection to the "valorisation of the environment" (EurActiv 16/11/09).

Resource-efficiency targets underway

Potočnik acknowledged that while the EU is a resource-rich bloc, there is room for improvement on resource efficiency and said the concept would be at the core of his policy as he would strive to break the link between economic growth and resource use. 

Expressing himself in favour of "targets to impose resource efficiency," he stressed the issue was "not about how much but how". 

He said he hopes to see a "third industrial revolution" where the negative environmental impacts are factored in the price of a product, thus making consumers pay more. "The cost of things we are using need to be part of the product," he said.

'EU can do better' on biodiversity

The environment commissioner-designate acknowledged that current EU biodiversity policies have not fully delivered and that "major challenges" lie ahead on the issue.

He stressed that "only holistic, cross-sectoral policy will deliver" on biodiversity and said he would try to ensure that biodiversity is integrated into the EU's next long-term budget (2013-2020).

Although he plans to make no changes to legislation, he hopes to enforce implementation of existing laws, he said, filling in the gaps on soil protection and gathering more environmental data to increase knowledge, for example.

Better implementation of existing legislation

MEPs asked several questions about how Potočnik intends to improve implementation of existing EU environmental laws. The commissioner-designate reassured his audience by underlining on several ocassions that "implementation is high on my agenda," but acknowledged that the "true power lies at member-state level". For this reason, he said he hoped to help build capacity in the member states to help them do the job themselves. 

Asked about new EU instruments to improve enforcement, Potočnik said that a Commission study assessing the feasibility of an EU agency to enforce and investigate the implementation of environmental legislation would be published in March 2010 (EurActiv 17/07/09). 

Water efficiency

MEPs particularly insisted on hearing Potočnik's views on water management. In response, he said no major review of water legislation was in the pipeline at the moment, but added that he would take stock of "how far we have come". He said he would prepare a European blueprint paper on water, focusing on savings, availability and climate resilience.

Demand-side measures such as water pricing and efficiency have not been looked at closely enough so far, he said, hinting at a potential point of action on the new commissioner's to-do list. 

Soil Directive 'unearthed'

Potočnik said that a proposal for a Framework Directive on Soil, first tabled in 2006, would be one of his first priorities. A handful of member states are blocking the proposal in the EU Council of Ministers, preventing the Commission from putting this highly controversial directive back on the table (EurActiv 20/12/07).

"In no way can removing the directive be a solution," Potočnik said. "Subsidiarity is no excuse for inaction" on the matter, he added, in reference to Germany, which argues that the new law would interfere with domestic policy.

Towards an EU Forest Directive? 

Talking about deforestation, Potočnik stressed that forests are very much linked to the biodiversity issue and also play a crucial role in fighting climate change.

He said that the Commission will launch a debate ('Green Paper') on forest protection "soon". Based on that paper and existing proposals on adaptation to climate change, he said the Commission would then be in a position to decide whether there is a need for an EU Forest Directive.