Green package unleashes criticism against von der Leyen inside the college 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) and European Commissioner for Transport Adina-Ioana Valean (L) give a press conference on delivering the European Green Deal, at the European Commission, in Brussels, Belgium, 14 July 2021. [EPA-EFE/ STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Some EU Commissioners expressed concerns on Wednesday (14 July) about the landmark ‘Fit for 55’ climate legislation package and criticised the way the massive initiative to transform the European economy was handled by the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, various officials told EURACTIV.com.

Seven Commission insiders consulted for this story said that almost one-third of the Commissioners had expressed some concerns about the package or how it was pushed forward. The same sources also confirmed that Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn had voted against it.

Officials said that, during the college meeting, Hahn expressed his full support for the ambition of the package but complained that there was no reference to the EU’s new own resources needed.

The new Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism to levy some imports and the EU’s expanded carbon market, two of the main proposals of the package, were expected to be part of the new own resources system to finance the recovery fund.

Commissioners unhappy with some aspects of the ‘Fit for 55’ initiative included some of the main sectors affected by the plan (Budget, Industry, Economy, Social Affairs) and came from the main political families (EPP, Socialists, Renew Europe), said a Commission official familiar with the situation.

EU unveils plan to cut emissions 55% by 2030, wave fossil fuels goodbye

The European Commission tabled a root-and-branch review of the EU’s energy and climate laws on Wednesday (14 July), aiming to cut carbon emissions by 55% before the end of the decade and initiate a decisive break away from fossil fuels.

In general, there was a shared frustration primarily about how the massive package of legislation intended to transform the energy consumption of companies and households was put together, the sources agreed.

Von der Leyen’s team was “more concerned about having a green flag with stars projected on the building than about wrapping up the deal well,” said one insider.

Another official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “the feeling of unease between the commissioners about the working method behind an initiative with such a big political and social impact reveals the flaws of the management skills of the President”.

But the discomfort had started boiling up well ahead of the meeting on Wednesday.

Three sources said that ‘red flags’ raised by some cabinets during the consultation phase were ignored. 

One of the officials noted that documents arrived “quite late”, some as late as last week. “You would have needed more time, and start consulting earlier,” the source explained.

As a result, cabinets and officials were racing against the clock over the weekend to finalise the details of the 13 initiatives included in the package.

Since Friday, there were four heads-of-cabinet meetings, some taking more than 12 hours. Some teams were working on the proposals until late in the night on Tuesday because von der Leyen wanted to have everything finalised before the college started.

The interviews the president gave while cabinets were still discussing the details was for some a clear sign that the opinion of her Commissioners was sidelined.

But the unease among the college members came not only from the process but also from the very substance of the legislative package.

A broadly shared concern was the social impact of the package on vulnerable groups, in particular in some member states, where families or industries are still heavily reliant on fossil fuels. 

Some cabinets questioned the inclusion of the road transport and buildings in the emissions trading system, one of the main novelties of the package. Others worried about the impact it will have on small and medium-sized companies.

“We agree with the climate goals, but the package is not mature enough in terms of details and the calendar,” one official said. 

Another source voiced doubt about whether the external dimension of the package and its impact on international trade was properly weighted.

The most controversial elements of the package, such as the carbon adjustment mechanism, the revised ETS or the phase out of petrol vehicles by 2035, were not the only ones to spark oposition.

Other segments also ruffled some feathers, including the forestry strategy in the case of Swedish Commissioner Ylva Johansson, given the vital importance of the forestry industry in her country.

Sources present during the college discussion said that almost everyone praised the package, “but had a point left or right they didn’t like, most of the time having nothing to do with their portfolio but a lot with domestic interests.”

According to the same sources, Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas was surprised at some of the reactions heard in the room.

“When we decided for an emission reduction of 55% I opposed it, because I thought this was too much. But today I am surprised that colleagues who wanted the 55% now question the necessary steps to get there,” Schinas said, according to the sources.

How the vaccine export control blunder exposed von der Leyen's 'flawed' centralism

Relevant EU commissioners were not consulted and staffer members had less than 30 minutes for a “quick check” before the EU’s proposed vaccine export control mechanism was presented to journalists last Friday (29 January), officials told EURACTIV.

The criticism against von der Leyen’s handling of one of the main legislative packages of her mandate came a few months after her cabinet was forced to backtrack on the activation of Article 16 of Northern Ireland Protocol that would have destabilised the island.

Officials complained at that time that von der Leyen had not consulted with key Commissioners on the last-minute inclusion of this clause during the vaccine dispute with the UK.

Her team also rejected the involvement of the Commission’s protocol services in the preparation of her trip to Turkey, where she was embarassingly left without a chair in a meeting with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“The now infamous ‘Sofagate’ “could have been avoided,” a Commission official told EURACTIV at the time.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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