Frans Timmermans passed his European Parliament hearing with flying colours on Tuesday evening (9 October) and was confirmed the following day as Ursula von der Leyen’s climate paladin. Here are the main talking points.
The Dutchman was questioned for nearly three hours on all aspects related to his future climate and Green Deal duties by the Parliament’s environment committee, with MEPs from the energy and transport committees also in attendance.
Committee chair Pascal Canfin later welcomed the candidate’s approach to various issues and the Parliament formally confirmed the green light for Timmermans on Wednesday (10 October).
The decision was announced after a meeting of coordinators from the Parliament’s political groups who said he was “the right man for the job”.
The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the centrist Renew Europe and the Greens all voted in favour of Timmermans, according to the committee’s spokesperson.
By contrast, the conservative ECR, the leftist GUE/NGL and the far-right ID group, voted to reject the Dutchman.
Von der Leyen made a number of green pledges after her selection by the European Council in July in an effort to win enough votes to be confirmed and Timmermans has been entrusted with enacting a significant number of those promises.
50 or 55%?
One of those pledges, specifically aimed at securing the green vote, was to increase the EU’s current overall emissions reduction target for 2030. Currently fixed at 40% cuts, von der Leyen teased an increase to 50% or even 55% if possible.
That two-stage approach was also mentioned in the mission letter she sent to Timmermans and the Dutchman was asked more than once to explain why the Commission would go for 50% first.
“Our arguments will be more convincing if we can back them up with research and facts,” Timmermans said in reply to S&D lawmaker Jytte Guteland, adding “I would be extremely surprised if that information and analysis would lead to any other conclusion than 55%.”
Other MEPs including the Greens’ Bas Eickhout and EPP’s Peter Liese both pushed Timmermans on the issue but he held firm in his insistence that the Commission will have to do a thorough analysis on the larger target before signing up to it.
“I agree that we will not have time to do two approaches,” he added and suggested that the process should be completed ahead of next year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow, although environmental groups warned that it will leave little time for the EU to agree on a position.
EU environment ministers agreed last week “to update” the so-called nationally determined contribution in 2020, which provoked the ire of NGOs and indeed some member states, who wanted a commitment to an increase there-and-then or at least more explicit language in the official summit conclusions.
“One million species out of around 8 million are at threat of extinction,” Timmermans warned and pledged to work on a broad Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 from the start of his mandate. He told MEPs it will be ready before or after a UN summit in October next year.
The Dutchman added though that biodiversity policy is more complex than emissions cuts, which are more simple to measure and quantify, and that in-depth research will be done in preparation for the strategy’s release.
But his intentions in this policy area were dismissed as “vague” by WWF Europe, which warned that although he appreciated the scale of the problem, he still lacked specific policies to address it.
“Biodiversity took a back seat to climate in tonight’s hearing, but we cannot protect one without acting on the other. It is time to act on the shocking loss of wildlife in the EU, put in place strict and binding commitments, and penalise those countries which do not respect them,” said WWF’s Andreas Baumüller.
No carbon price floor
Bas Eickhout tweeted during the hearing that “Timmermans is replying to most questions without looking at his notes. He really masters many topics already of his portfolio.”
Indeed, MEPs quizzed Timmermans on the nitty-gritty of climate policy and he was able to give in-depth answers to all queries, even if some lawmakers did not like the content of those replies.
One of the more technical aspects of the portfolio is the notion of a carbon floor price for the EU’s emissions trading scheme. Currently, the price fluctuates according to market forces but there have been pushes, especially by France, to install a minimum value.
But Timmermans revealed he is not a fan of the idea. “I don’t see the merits of introducing a carbon price floor,” he replied to Green MEP Michael Bloss. “The price is going in the right direction and I’m pretty confident it will continue.”
The price of carbon has indeed increased over the last 18 months and is currently hovering around the €25 mark. But climate experts insist that it must reach at least €45 or even €50 to start seriously pushing dirty energy supplies out of the system.
Without more safeguards, the trading scheme could be a victim of its own success, as the more coal power is driven out, the more free carbon allowances are left unused. That has proved to have a negative effect on the carbon price.
Timmermans also acknowledged that he and other Commissioners will have to work on a carbon border tax, a proposed levy that will tax imports from third-party countries that do not meet EU environmental standards.
Commissioners Paul Hogan (trade) and Paolo Gentiloni (economy) will be tasked with ensuring the new tax does not fall foul of World Trade Organisation rules. “We have to make sure it doesn’t get punished for doing the right thing,” Timmermans reiterated.
Convincing the rest of the world
The current climate Commissioner, Miguel Arias Cañete, has spent much of his time visiting other parts of the world in an attempt to convince other countries to join Europe in its green drive.
That commitment to getting other big emitters on the same page looks set to continue under Timmermans’ watch, as he told MEPs that “a big part of my job will be trying to convince others”.
“It’s a huge challenge,” he acknowledged but added that China wants to mirror Europe’s approach and that “a deal can be done there”. On the US, he also said a distinction must be made between what happens at federal and state level on climate policy.
US President Donald Trump has notified the UN that he intends to withdraw his country at the earliest possible time (November next year) but several states, notably California, have promised to stick to the climate deal’s targets.
Von der Leyen has tasked Timmermans with proposing a ‘Climate Law’ within the first 100 days of her European Commission, which means the Dutchman will have until the beginning of February to do his homework.
MEPs pushed him on what will actually be in the legislation and it became clear that the headline inclusion will be the EU’s pending commitment to climate-neutrality by 2050.
The current Commission’s plan has the backing of 25 member states but the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland are still unconvinced. As there is little room for manoeuvre at the October summit, December’s meeting of leaders will be crunch time.
Eickhout suggested that wide-sweeping transport measures like mass zero-emission car roll-out, massive maritime emission cuts and aviation measures should be included in the law but Timmermans said his services will have to do their research first.
He concluded that “it will go as far as it can” and that “it can’t be an empty shell”.
It also emerged that Timmermans is a superhero movie fan. At the beginning of the hearing, committee chair Pascal Canfin quoted from the Spider-Man film series, insisting that “with great power comes great responsibility”.
Timmermans replied that he would “not end up like Uncle Ben, getting killed off at the beginning of the movie”. The Dutchman also closed the hearing with a cultural reference, quoting from Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]