MEPs should not approve a Commission President lacking a sustainability agenda

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Leading candidates of the European political parties at the Eurovision presidential debate on 15 May. [Olivier Hoslet / EPA]

This article is part of our special report EU elections: The environmental issue.

The European Parliament must only accept a Commission President with a strong agenda on climate, environment and sustainability, according to Ester Asin, Director of the WWF European Policy Office.

When Jean-Claude Juncker was elected by the European Parliament in 2014 for the top position at the European Commission, little space was made to debate his ten priorities – the political guidelines – which were only made public on the morning of his confirmation.

His nomination was then swiftly accepted in plenary statements issued by all main political group leaders. Little did they know that, once the blank cheque was signed, President Juncker would start shredding draft legislation in the area of resource efficiency and soil protection, shelving improved energy efficiency rules for appliances, and reducing the role of the environment commissioner to a part time occupation by combining it with another portfolio. In the first years of President Juncker’s mandate, the environment was clearly not a big thing.

What went wrong at the time? When it came to appointing the top jobs, horsetrading based on political affiliations was favoured over discussions on substance – an unhealthy side effect of the Spitzenkandidaten process, which political groups in the Parliament were not able to mitigate. And although individual Commissioners eventually stepped up their actions over time on sustainable finance, oceans protection, climate action or sustainable development, time was wasted. Many national governments slacked on implementing essential laws guaranteeing Europeans’ prosperity, safety and health and investors did not receive the needed signals to increase investments into sustainable economies.

This mistake must not be repeated. 2019 has brought new momentum, especially in light of the broad public support during the campaign for strong action on climate change and nature loss. The political priorities for the coming five years should not be determined unilaterally by the President of the European Commission, they should reflect the concerns of Europeans, debated and agreed by their democratically elected representatives. Any Commission President-designate (be it a Spitzenkandidat or not) must seek to negotiate on substance and MEPs must only accept a President who has a clear and ambitious agenda on climate, environment and sustainability.

During the campaign, WWF interviewed lead candidates from all main European parties. Their statements highlight resounding agreement on the importance of tackling climate change and restoring nature. All main parties for instance agreed to work towards net zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. It would therefore be only appropriate for the incoming Commission President to make proposals to increase the 2030 emissions reductions target to 65% and lead Europe to end all financial support to fossil fuel infrastructure. This transition will have to be just and fair, and take into considerations the needs of the people from affected regions.

Similarly, lead candidates indicated their concern and commitment to tackling nature loss, many exclaiming the need for a “Paris moment for biodiversity”. Europe is on course for missing its biodiversity targets for the second time. If it is serious about halting and reversing the loss of nature by 2030 on land and at sea for good, the incoming Commission must step-up enforcement on the implementation of the EU nature laws and present a plan for large-scale nature restoration and connectivity across Europe. This would not only bring back Europe’s iconic species, but also support climate mitigation and stabilisation.

But tackling nature loss in Europe is not enough – we also have a responsibility to reduce the ecological footprint of our consumption abroad: if all people around the globe lived like Europeans, we would need 2.8 planets. All Spitzenkandidaten agreed that we cannot continue like this. The next Commission must present an EU footprint action plan tackling the impacts of our consumption and our dependence on resources from non-EU countries, and this must cover measures to fully address global deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems.

Building momentum around these issues can only be achieved if sustainability becomes a central pillar of the next Commission and if a European Vice-President for Climate Action and Natural Resources is appointed. This person should take ownership of the to-be-adopted Environmental Action Programme towards 2030 and transform it into a true European Sustainability Pact guiding the EU’s green agenda, agreed by Member States, Parliament and Commission. And the Commission President must personally oversee the adoption of an overarching and high-level implementation strategy for the UN Sustainable Development Goals at EU level as called for by the European Council in 2018.

The Parliament has a key role to play in approving the next Commission President, and it must take this responsibility seriously. There is a clear mandate from voters to put Europe firmly on the path of sustainability and climate action. MEPs must thus use the coming days and weeks to secure strong environmental commitments from the Commission President-designate before giving their approval. There is simply no time for yet another detour.

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