The Brief – Hunting season on member states is open

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter.

The European Commission, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t like going after member states. At the same time, MEPs live for it. But don’t be surprised if in 2018 we see the Berlaymont taking the Parliament’s side more and more.

Jean-Claude Juncker, despite attempts to convince us he heads a truly political Commission, is at the end of the day in charge of the EU’s civil service. All out war with the member states is never his preferred option.

Obviously in some cases, like when it comes to rule of law and media freedom in Poland and Hungary, his hand is forced and the Commission has to get involved.

But what about more subtle areas, where there isn’t overwhelming political and public pressure for the executive to wade into the breach, like environmental and energy policy?

How does the Commission go up against the Council, especially when it – shock – changes its mind about something?

As we reported last year, the EU executive has all but admitted that its initial idea for a renewable energy target (27%) is now outdated. Different interest groups call for anything between 30 and even 45%. The Parliament will now fight for 35%.

It’s common knowledge that DG Energy used figures that predated the Paris Agreement and the recent fall in price that has made the likes of wind and solar power cheaper than nuclear and competitive with fossil fuels.

Although there is no blame there (Commission proposals come out years before they finally become law), it could be embarrassing for the Berlaymont to put its hands up and say it got it wrong. This would open Pandora’s Box: what if they got it wrong on other files too?

So what’s a Commissioner to do?

The answer is quite simple really: you get behind the Parliament when it comes to crunch time.

MEPs will nearly always back a position that is far more ambitious than that of the member states, so when everyone goes behind closed doors for trilogues, don’t be surprised to hear that the likes of Canete and Sefcovic are coming around to the Parliament’s way of thinking.

(We might even be able to hear more than hearsay or rumours coming out of those meetings after the EU Ombudsman published a list of proposals that are intended to make trilateral talks more transparent.)

Climate boss Canete suggested that would be the case in a series of tweets after yesterday’s plenary session on energy files in Strasbourg.

The Spanish Commissioner congratulated MEPs for backing strong positions and pledged to help “facilitate ambitious” deals with the member states.

Surely one of the architects of the proposals that were, in some cases, radically altered by the Parliament should be expressing reservations not praise about those agreements?

Time will tell how committed the Commission is to its opinion on things, so the Bulgarian EU Presidency had better get ready for some fierce talks during its tenure.

As influential Green MEP Claude Turmes put it yesterday after the votes: the member states should “get ready” for him and his “damn good team”. They may have some unexpected cavalry to call upon.

The Roundup

The Commission is set to give some member states a rollicking at the end of the month after it summoned ministers from countries with the worst air pollution to Brussels to explain themselves. It could be a last chance saloon for some and legal action might follow if the answers aren’t good enough.

Green MEPs hailed yesterday’s Parliament vote to make the EU a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050 as “a great victory for the climate”. For the first time, it sets the bloc a carbon budget that it must not exceed if it is to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Commissioner Canete has promised the EU will step up its funding for climate action in developing countries. He said public money should be used to create an environment where private companies can invest the $100bn per year that developed countries promised.

Britain must massively boost investment in agriculture if its farmers are to remain competitive after Brexit, farmers warned at a EURACTIV event in London. It is unclear how the government intends to replace CAP subsidies, which will stop in 2022.

For ideas on how to improve the relevance of education and the employability of young people, Europe could take a leaf out of Germany’s book.

With Bulgaria at the helm of the EU, the years of waiting for progress on accession talks may be over for the Western Balkans.

Macedonia now looks within spitting distance of solving its 26-year name dispute with Greece.

The next global economic crisis will be sparked by inequality and it is waiting just around the corner, the World Economic Forum has warned ahead of its annual summit in Davos next week. Our only hope is a radical transformation of capitalism.

Look out for…

Angela Merkel will meet Emmanuel Macron in Paris tomorrow to discuss the future of Europe, as their finance ministers aim to bring the banking union one step closer to completion.

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