Karmenu Vella, the Maltese Commissioner-designate for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, failed to impress a sceptical audience during a European Parliament confirmation hearing yesterday (29 September).
“I am not making any commitments today, not because I was instructed to from above, but simply because we must first take stock of EU legislation and its implementation,” stressed Vella, who was grilled by Members of the European Parliament on Monday (29 September).
Mr. Vella, a former Minister of Public Works, Industry and Tourism in Malta, was the first candidate to be interviewed by MEPs in a series of Parliamentary confirmation hearings that will lead to a confirmation vote on the new College of Commissioners on 22 October.
Opposition over the merging of Environment with Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, which until now were separate portfolios, has been vivid prior to the hearings.
The new directorate general will be subordinated to the broader policy area of Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, overseen by Vice-President nominee Jyrki Katainen, of Finland.
Green campaigners as well as the President of the European Parliament, Martin Shultz, have voiced concern that the Commission’s new structure, as envisaged by President Juncker, threatens to diminish the level of importance given to environmental issues within EU policy, especially in comparison with the Union’s economic agenda.
At the onset of the hearings, French centre-right MEP Alain Cadec (EPP), who chairs the Committee on Fisheries, stressed that Vella would have to “put more flesh on the bones” when answering MEPs. The Maltese Commissioner-designate had only provided general answers in his written questionnaire sent prior to the hearing, Cadec said.
However, for the most part, Vella stuck to broad statements. For example, he stressed that merging the two portfolios was a “natural fit” and that blue and green growth were “two sides of the same coin”.
Since water bodies cover about 70% of the planet versus 30% for land, he added, saying blue and green policies will reinforce each other and that one policy area should not be developed at the expense of the other.
Asked about the absence of a sustainability agenda from the mission letter sent by Commission President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker to his new team, Vella answered that sustainability was written down in the EU treaties. It is therefore understood that sustainable growth is a responsibility for all Commission departments to integrate in their work, he said.
No conflict between fishermen’s interests and the environment
Vella rejected suggestions that conflicts could arise between economic and environmental interests within the newly merged Environment and Maritime Affairs portfolios.
If environmental experts argue that bluefin tuna should be included on a protected species list, there should be no protest from the fisheries sector, the candidate said. A conflict was unlikely since fishing quotas are determined on the basis of scientific research and not by political maneuvering that would favour the fishing industry, he argued.
Vella provided little detail regarding possible initiatives that he may envisage going forward. In some cases, such as possible restrictions on animal testing for domestic products, he simply admitted that he did not know these dossiers in depth.
On other specific matters – such as the EU ban on neonicotinoids suspected to be harmful to bee health, or a Parliament resolution on the use of cyanide in gold mining, or the possible merging of the Birds and Habitats Directives – Vella said he would prefer to wait and see results of ongoing assessments of existing legislation before launching new initiatives.
Similarly, the Maltese nominee stressed that it is up to member states to decide on their own energy mix. If some actually try out shale gas, it would be best to see first how things develop before the EU considers any proposal.
Overall, the Commissioner-designate’s main emphasis was on effective implementation of existing laws rather than on new legislation. Since there were over 300 infringement cases over environmental law last year, making member states comply with legislation, thanks to either individual discussions or legal enforcements, was the greater priority, he said.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the new President of the European Commission, announced the distribution of portfolios among his new team on 10 September.
Among the new Commissioners, due to take up their posts on 1 November, are 18 former (prime) ministers. The President has announced that the new Commission will be "very political".
The new Commission must now be approved by the European Parliament, who will interview the Commissioners between 29 September and 7 October.
During these two weeks of hearings, the 27 Commissioners will be interviewed by MEPs from relevant parliamentary commissions.
The European Parliament must then accept or reject the whole team.
- 29 September to 7 October: Hearings of Commissioners-designate and committee evaluation meetings
- 7 October: Extraordinary meeting of the Conference of Committee Chairs to evaluate the outcome of the hearings
- 8-9 October: Political groups will meet to evaluate the hearings
- 22 October: Vote in Plenary