Claude Turmes: ‘In Council, I will continue running the show for Europe and the planet’

Claude Turmes (R), with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the European Parliament, on 14 Feb. 2017. [© European Union 2017 - Source : EP]

Former MEP Claude Turmes is attending his first Environment Council meeting on Monday (25 June), days after he left the European Parliament to join the government of Luxembourg. In an interview with EURACTIV, he explains how he sees his new role and what he hopes to achieve.

Claude Turmes is a former Member of the European Parliament for Luxembourg, sitting with the Greens/EFA group. On 20 June, he took up a new role in the Luxembourg government as state secretary for the environment.

Turmes was the Parliament’s rapporteur on the proposed regulation on the Governance of the Energy Union on which EU legislators struck an agreement on 20 June. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Frédéric Simon on 18 June, ahead of talks with the Council and the Commission.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Luxembourg has “huge traffic jams” and needs a combination of better spatial planning as well as lower fuel taxes in order to address “tank tourism”;
  • In the Council, Luxembourg will “make the point” about CO2 emissions from cars and trucks;
  • Turmes plans to “organise progressive majorities” in the Council – “and if necessary blocking minorities” – on key pieces of EU environmental legislation;
  • Move to 100% renewable electricity by 2030 is needed to make the electrification of transport credible.

***

At the end of June, you will take on a new position as state secretary for environment in Luxembourg. What will be your priorities there?

First you have to understand that this move comes from a dramatic event. My best political friend and climate hero in Luxembourg, Camille Gira, died three weeks ago. This is a very big loss not only for the Green Party but for the whole environmental movement in Luxembourg. So there was no choice, in such dramatic moments, you have to take your responsibilities.

As state secretary for the environment, Camille was working on the circular economy, national climate politics, and also biodiversity and nature protection, which at the national level involves planning permissions for all kinds of infrastructure.

One of his big successes was his initiative to outlaw killing of foxes, which are now protected in Luxembourg. And that will be one of my fights to ensure no-one in future shoots these precious animals, because there is absolutely no reason.

Was that really a big issue?

It was an important issue. Foxes in Luxembourg are a bit what like the singing birds are for Malta.

A second part of my job will be to assist the minister for infrastructure. This is also about urban planning: Luxembourg has a world-class economy but we didn’t have any urban planning at all.

We have huge traffic jams, which are the result of a very dynamic economy but also from a lack of real thinking about where to locate public transport, and other activities. Camille has already moved politics a lot into the right direction together with François Bausch on this and it will also be part of my job to continue his work.

So you’ll deal with road transport. What other things?

Above all, my role is about spatial planning. Over the last four-and-a-half years, my working relationship with the minister for the economy and energy, Etienne Schneider, was good.

Luxembourg is with Sweden and Portugal the three champions of the 35-35 target for renewables and energy efficiency, as well as the objective of aiming for a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. And that is basically also the European Parliament’s position.

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As secretary of state, you won’t have a full ministerial portfolio, and you will be considered as a ‘junior’ member of the government. How will you make your voice heard? 

I have a very good relationship with the green ministers, first of all the minister of environment Carole Dieschbourg, who is also a good friend. I need two-three weeks to get a grip on the most important files. But the one thing I will continue is my fight on CO2 from cars and lorries.

In the European Parliament, I was in charge of the file on public procurement for green vehicles, which will be in my portfolio as state secretary in Luxembourg.

So as of the 25 June, next Monday, I will be sitting at the Council table making the point to other ministers about the need to address CO2 emissions from cars.

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After 19 years in Parliament, you ended up being quite influential. Can you ever become as influential as the state secretary of a small country like Luxembourg?

First, I enjoyed working in the European Parliament. I was originally an environmental activist working on EU issues at Friends of the Earth Europe. And when we had a bit of time, we tried lobbying MEPs because 90% of all national laws on energy, water or air, are derived from EU laws. This is how the idea came to me in 1997 or 98 to try to join the Parliament as a member.

The Parliament is a fantastic place for people who come with a clear agenda. I was used before coming there to work beyond the political parties, I was used to working in networks and dig deep into the files.

Academics actually describe the European Parliament as a parliament of experts who are working beyond the borders of political parties or factions. So it was a fantastic time, the Parliament is a very professional parliament and it has huge leverage.

Now, turning to your question about Luxembourg being a small country – a shining example for me was Svend Auken, the Danish minister for energy and environment. Sven joined the Energy Council and the Environment Council at the beginning of the 1990s. And almost all progress made during that time was when Svend stepped in to coordinate the positions of the progressive EU member states.

And I will use all of my networks to do the same and organise progressive majorities – and if needed progressive blocking minorities – in order to continue running the show for Europe and for the planet.

Still Luxembourg has four votes in the Council, out of 352. The country represents 0.10% of the EU population. How can such a small player have leverage in the Council?

The question you’re putting to me today is the same that journalists asked when I joined the Parliament in 1999. A Green member from Luxembourg is only one among 750 members. But when there is a will there is a way.

Luxembourg is hardly seen as a renewable energy leader and has struggled to meet its 2020 target of 11% renewables, reaching only 5%. How can Luxembourg catch up?

Luxembourg is a small country but it has quite a big industry: we have steel, cement, glass, tires, coating, and Europe’s number four or five in cargo flights.

But transport alone is 60% of energy consumption in Luxembourg whereas in most other countries it’s 25%. And this is because of low taxes on transport fuels, which has artificially created to a certain extent a “tank tourism” industry and favours fossil based individual transport.

When it comes to electricity, 1915 was the last year when Luxembourg produced enough electricity for itself – it had to be imported after that year. And that means we are too low in renewables and we need to get higher. We have a boom in wind power, we tripled the capacity over the last two-three years, and that was very much thanks to Camille Gira.

We have already the most progressive net-zero emission building standards in Europe. So that means we are making progress. But at the end of the day, every country in Europe will have to go to 100% renewables. In Luxembourg, that means we will do whatever we can to be more efficient, to be more circular, to have more renewables in electricity as well as other sectors, and have one of the most aggressive electric car and bus strategies of all member states.

But we will always need to import part of our electricity. And that’s why one of my tasks will be to continue working with other member states. Luxembourg has signed the first cooperation agreement with Estonia and Latvia on statistical exchanges of renewable energy.

If Luxembourg could take one quarter of a big offshore wind park and bring that electricity to Luxembourg, I think that would be good for clean energy investment, for climate policy in Europe, and it would very quickly ensure 100% renewable electricity in our country.

When you look at the renewable electricity directive and Article 27bis in the governance regulation (on EU renewable energy financing mechanisms), that is exactly where smaller landlocked countries like Luxembourg and Slovakia can take part in bigger projects while also taking into account the realities of their territories.

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Statistical exchanges are still controversial in the environmental community. Some see them as a way of gaming the system or avoiding responsibility.

Of course, you can also see it that way. But de facto very little has actually happened. Personally, I think that in order to get cost-efficiency over Europe, some landlocked countries need access to the big offshore wind – in the Baltic, in the North Sea – or to very big, cheap solar coming from the south.

With the new renewables directive and governance regulation, we will organise this cross-border cooperation between countries. In the Green Party programme, we are now enshrining an objective of 100% renewable electricity for 2030 because if we want to be credible on electric cars, busses, trucks and vans, we must also make sure that the electricity does not come from coal but from renewables. And we will push very aggressively the renewable energy transition.

You mentioned “tank tourism” in Luxembourg, which is due to the favourable tax regime. Is that something you would look to scrap?

This was already in the Green Party programme, we have pushed the government into making a study on it which shows the financial and ecological impact of this policy and establishes a clear monitoring regime. So it’s something that will stay on the table.

But the more we electrify transport – and we should do it fast – the more this money machine will decline and the more our bargaining power on that issue will increase.

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