German environmentalists sour on new Commissioner Vella

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella from Malta, already faces much criticism for his background in tourism, lack of experience and much more. [EC}

Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella from Malta, already faces much criticism for his background in tourism, lack of experience and much more. [EC}

With a lack of experience, a background in tourism and no clear distribution of roles with fellow commissioners, Maltese politician Karmenu Vella has much to prove as Europe’s new Environment Commissioner, according to German activists. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The G7 Summit and the United Nations climate conference in Paris are planned for the coming year, focusing on energy, the climate and environmental protection.

But the EU’s level of ambition at these meetings has already sparked considerable debate among MEPs during the hearings of the new Commissioners.

The biggest point of contention was the allocation of competences to Vella’s Environment portfolio – an issue that drove the Greens to vote against Jean-Claude Juncker’s new Commission.

“Mr. Juncker has more social Europe in his blood than Mr. Barroso, but unfortunately it doesn’t show in ecological and future-oriented investments in the ecological sector,” said Sven Giegold, financial and economic policy spokesman for the Greens in the European Parliament.

Sustainable development barely played a role in Juncker’s letters to each of the Commissioners, where he presented them with their responsibilities, Giegold told Deutschlandfunk radio.

“Powerful green portolios”

President Juncker tried to reassure environmentalists in a speech after the approval of the new Commission, reminding that sustainable development was “deeply enshrined” in the EU Treaties.

“Sustainability and environmental concerns are important to our citizens. We have the tools to address them in the new Commission: with powerful green portfolios that have big budgets and regulatory teeth,” Juncker said.

But after the vote, many voices were heard criticising Juncker’s choice for the post, the structure of the commissioner portfolios, and the responsibilities assigned to them.

Whereas environmental law has seen steady progress in Europe over the past 30 years, many existing laws and regulations still need to be fully implemented. This includes water conservation and waste legislation, two areas included in a proposal tabled by former Commission President José Manuel Barroso before the summer break.

Implementing directives according to national law

“In many member states, directives must still be cemented in national law,” said Götz Reichert from the Centre for European Policy (CEP). Further, existing law in individual countries has to be managed,” he told EURACTIV Germany.

Here, Reichert indicated considerable shortcomings, primarily in southeast Europe, where there is a lack of experience in this regard. Whether or not the new Maltese Environment Commissioner will be able to tackle these issues will become apparent over the next five years, he said.

Many portfolios in the European Commission were re-shuffled in the incoming Juncker Commission. Environment Commissioner Vella was assigned Environmental Protection, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. Each of these areas are expected to play a decisive role over the next few years safeguarding resources and promoting growth, jobs and investment, the Commission said in a statement.

But critics argue that environmental protection and sustainability were neglected in the new European Commission because industry interests were given priority. The appointment of a former Maltese Tourism Minister is something critics see as a backward step with regard to environmental protection.

“We are criticising the fact that Juncker did not include the 7th Environmental Action Programme (EAP) in Vella’s portfolio assignment, although the Environment and Fisheries Committee specifically called for this,” Claus Mayr, from the nature conservancy organisation NABU, told EURACTIV Germany.

Environmental Action Programme questioned

During his hearing, Vella did ensure the Parliament that he would work to implement the EAP – a binding set of guidelines for all EU institutions over the priorities in the EU’s environmental policy until 2020.

Vella pledge to firmly implement environmental laws in the member states, such as nature conservation guidelines or legislative initiatives to improve air quality and resource security.

“But if Vella does not prioritise this, environmental and nature protection risk being eroded in the EU,” warned Mayr.

In particular, Mayr said it was not yet clear how cooperation will work in practice between Juncker’s deputy Frans Timmermans, Vice Presidents Jyrki Katainen and Maroš Šef?ovi? and Environment Commissioner Vella.

“At the latest, the World Climate Conference in Fall 2015 will reveal inefficiencies caused by unclear areas of responsibility,” the nature protection activist predicted.

Meanwhile the CEP’s Reichert is not concerned about cooperation. “Because the EU does not have any past experience in this regard, it must be gained now”, he said.

But what cooperation will look like and what value is placed on environmental protection, are questions Reichert said will depend mostly on one factor: the individuals themselves.

Karmenu Vella, the Maltese Commissioner-designate for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, failed to impress a sceptical audience during a European Parliament confirmation hearing on 29 September.

Mr. Vella, a former Minister of Public Works, Industry and Tourism in Malta, was the first candidate to be interviewed by MEPs in a series of Parliamentary confirmation hearings that led to the approval of the new College of Commissioners on 22 October.

Opposition over the merging of Environment with Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, which until now were separate portfolios, was vivid prior to the hearings.

The new directorate general will be subordinated to the broader policy area of Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, overseen by Vice-President nominee Jyrki Katainen, of Finland.

Green campaigners as well as the President of the European Parliament, Martin Shultz, have voiced concern that the Commission’s new structure, as envisaged by President Juncker, threatens to diminish the level of importance given to environmental issues within EU policy, especially in comparison with the Union’s economic agenda.

>> Read: Vella elusive on fisheries and environmental policy

  • 1 Nov. 2014: New Commission takes office

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