EXCLUSIVE / Frans Timmermans, the Commission First Vice-President in charge of Better Regulation, ignored Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella’s advice not to ditch the Circular Economy Package of waste, recycling and incineration laws, it has emerged.
Commissioner Karmenu Vella wrote to Frans Timmermans on 13 November 2014, a month before the six bills on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment were binned.
No decision on whether to ditch or change the rules should be taken until the Council of the EU and the European Parliament had first scrutinised the bill, he told Timmermans.
Nothing suggested fundamental problems “that would merit the risk of withdrawing proposals before the co-legislators have had a proper chance to consider them,” he added.
On 16 December, Timmermans announced that the package would be withdrawn as part of the Commission’s push to cut red tape. That was later confirmed by the College of Commissioners in March.
Vella’s letter was obtained by EURACTIV, after the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) used the EU’s access to documents regulation to get the internal papers. The EEB has asked for documents related to the dropping of the package, which was drafted under the previous Barroso Commission.
But emails sent by European Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day to Timmermans shortly before he dumped the package, were not released. One was a “briefing note” sent the day before (15 December, 2014) Timmermans’ controversial announcement.
There was a risk that publishing the documents would lead to “external interferences with the ongoing internal discussions and the right of the Commission to protect its ‘space to think’”, the executive told the EEB.
Pieter de Pous, EEB policy director said, “These emails and briefings are key to understanding the Commission’s decision to bin the waste package. Arguing against their release because of their relevance for the new proposal is far from convincing, and will only feed speculation as to the real reason.”
The decision to withdraw the package against the wishes of EU environment ministers and many MEPs has remained dogged by suspicion.
EURACTIV exclusively revealed that lobby organisation BusinessEurope had called for it to be ditched in a secret kill list of laws sent to Timmermans before the December announcement.
It has emerged that the Commission has left itself exposed to the risk of being sued by either the Parliament or Council over the withdrawal of the package.
EU judges have limited the European Commission’s right to withdraw legislation, raising doubts over its drive to cut red tape and its decision to axe the Circular Economy package of waste laws, EURACTIV reports today (28 April).
Among the conditions set by the European Court of Justice is a requirement that the executive’s grounds for withdrawing the package are supported by cogent arguments, which are properly brought to the other institutions’ attention.
The executive, including Vella himself, has insisted it will resubmit a new “more ambitious” set of rules this year.
But in November, Vella argued for safeguarding the package until the European Parliament and Council of the EU had scrutinised the bill. It could create up to an estimated 2.6 million jobs, Vella wrote to Timmermans.
“It’s important also to send the signal that this Commission is serious about its intention to contribute to green growth,” he told Timmermans.
“So I hope that on this basis we can agree to wait until after the Council and the Parliament have completed their first readings [on the bill] next year before taking any decisions on withdrawing or amending the proposals.”
Vella also pushed for an air quality package to be spared until after the first readings of that bill by MEPs and EU ambassadors. It ultimately was, although the executive plans to amend the legislation during the final three-way negotiations between the major institutions on the draft law.
Prospects for adoption
Timmermans launched a screening exercise of pending legislation after taking charge of the push for better regulation. One of the criteria bills were checked against was the feasibility of their adoption.
Vella said in his letter that the main groups in the Parliament were “fully behind” the Circular Economy package, including its waste review targets.
The dropped package included legally binding targets of 70% recycling for municipal waste by 2030, 80% recycling for packaging, such as glass, paper, metal and plastic by 2030, and a ban on landfilling of all recyclable and biodegradable waste by 2025.
After meetings with EU diplomats, it was clear many member states wanted to reduce the targets, Vella said in the letter. But a majority of countries still welcomed the proposal, he said.
Malta’s Commissioner told EURACTIV in March that targets would be retained from the old package.The recycling targets will remain the same but the approach will be different for member states which are experiencing difficulties meeting them, he said.
He has also said that the new package will be more ambitious because it will include rules to ensure products are designed to be more easily recyclable.
After the announcement of the Circular Economy package’s withdrawal, EU environment ministers were “unanimous” in opposing the move.
But the Council later approved the Commission’s work programme and, according to the Commission, by extension, the dropping of the package.
Cracks between different political groups in January meant the Parliament could not pass a single proposal supporting the package.
But more than 60% of MEPs voted for separate resolutions, all of which supported the environmental bills, campaigners and MEPs said.
The EEB’s de Pous said, “The decision to withdraw the waste package went against the expressed wishes of Parliament, the Council of Ministers and a large groups of stakeholders, so who did it satisfy?
“It is important we get to the bottom of this. With the Commission deliberating on a new, ‘more ambitious’ proposal, this question remains as relevant now as when we filed the access to document request.”
EURACTIV asked Vella’s office for comment last night at 5:40pm. The following statement came in today (28 April).
Vella said, “This was an initial assessment at the very start of our internal discussions, as foreseen in my mission letter from President Juncker. After detailed cross-service discussions I decided together with my colleagues that a more ambitious and truly circular approach would be best served by withdrawing the one-sided proposals on the table and returning with a more comprehensive package.”
"This letter reveals uncertainty about who is in charge of environmental legislation in the Commission. Despite Commission assertions about the Circular Economy package's replacement being stronger, we are suspicious that it will only focus on waste. Specifically, the accompanying communication on resource efficiency has worryingly disappeared from the political agenda. The package we need should put resource efficiency at the core of waste policy," said Ariadna Rodrigo, resource and consumption campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.
The Circular Economy package was intended to increase recycling levels and tighten rules on incineration and landfill.
It consists of six bills on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment.
Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans was been given a mandate from new Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to cut red tape and deliver “better regulation”.
He told MEPs in December 2014 that he would consult with the Council of Ministers and the Parliament before withdrawing and re-tabling the package.
>>Read: Coverage on better regulation