Team Juncker: EU unveils new Energy Commissioner(s)

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Jean-Claude Juncker and his spokeswoman, Natasha Bertaud (Credit: European Union, 2014)

Jean-Claude Juncker and his spokeswoman, Natasha Bertaud (Credit: European Union, 2014)

Slovenia’s ex-Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek and Spanish ex-minister Miguel Arias Cañete have been nominated to lead EU energy policy in a new European Commission due to take office on 1 November. Incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced Bratušek as Vice President for Energy Union and Cañete as Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy – yes the two portfolios are being merged – on 10 September in Brussels. Cañete is expected to face a tough hearing by MEPs at the end of the month.

Brussels was a burst of excitement on Wednesday 10th September as incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker revealed his new team of Vice Presidents, Commissioners and who would do what to a packed press room. The biggest innovation, he said, was the creation of seven Vice Presidents – one of them for an Energy Union – that will lead “project teams… steering and coordinating the work of a number of Commissioners”.

It’s being billed as a procedural change to “streamline” the Commission. In practice, the VPs will determine what makes it onto the agenda of the Commission for discussion. They will act as “filters” Juncker said: “The Vice Presidents… can stop any initiative, including legislative, of a Commissioner in their team.” It’s still one Member (Commissioner or Vice President) one vote – the EU Treaty requires the Commission to decide by majority after all – but the VPs will decide what makes it onto the agenda in the first place.

Energy Union

One priority right now is “ensuring that Europe stands on its own feet when it comes to energy security” in the words of the Commission. It is for this purpose that the post of VP for Energy Union appears to have been created. In his mission letter to Alenka Bratušek, Juncker says her objective is “to bring about a resilient Energy Union, with a forward-looking climate change policy”. He adds: “I want the EU to become the world number one in renewable energies” and “A binding 30% objective for energy efficiency by 2030 is to me the minimum if we want to be credible.” The EU needs to unite its negotiating power vis-a-vis third countries, he also says.

The mission letter calls on Bratušek to steer the work in particular of the Commissioners for Climate Action and Energy; Transport and Space; Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs; Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Regional Policy, Agriculture and Rural Development; and Research, Science and Innovation.

So how does her brief differ from that of Miguel Arias Cañete, Commissioner-designate for Climate Action and Energy? In his mission letter to Cañete, Juncker says he must “contribute to establishing a European Energy Union with a forward-looking climate change policy”. Pretty much identical therefore! Indeed the rest of the brief strongly resembles that for Bratušek, except that the Spaniard is called upon to be much more hands-on in choosing the most important energy infrastructure projects, making sure they plus renewables and efficiency get financed, leading a 2030 legislative package (proposals should be made early in the mandate, Juncker says), sorting out the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) and making sure that the EU plays a central role in the international climate talks.

Cañete will report to the VP for Energy Union and the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. At his disposal, he has the DGs for Climate Action and for Energy, which will not be merged. In a nutshell, Commissioners like Cañete will develop specific policies, backed up by the Commission’s services, and VPs like Bratušek will check that these are coherent with one another, backed by Juncker and his right-hand man, Frans Timmermans from the Netherlands, given the title VP for Better Regulation.

Power play

Juncker presented his VPs as extensions of himself and his authority. But some stakeholders wonder how powerful they will be in practice, without a dedicated directorate-general behind them. There was confusion too, over exactly how competences would be split between Cañete and Bratušek, despite Juncker’s insistence that the two have clearly distinct roles.

But if there was hesitation on the day, there was also optimism. Three German MEPs at an aptly timed evening debate on 10 September, organised by the Forum für Zukunftenergien, a not-for-profit German energy think tank, gave a cautious welcome to Juncker’s proposed structure. Michael Theurer from the Liberals, Jens Geier from the Socialists and Rebecca Harms from the Greens said they would “wait and see if could work” but were in principle open to Juncker’s approach. “Better governance is now more important than ever to combat Euro-scepticism,” noted Harms.

At the same time, environmentalists said they were worried that in the restructuring of portfolios, environment and climate action had been “marginalised”. “Instead of putting sustainability central to his new team, Juncker has decided to relegate it to the margins by scrapping the dedicated posts of a climate and an environment commissioner and appointing a deregulation first Vice-President to put a competitiveness filter on all initiatives”, said Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green campaign group.

Business indeed, seemed happy, with BusinessEurope calling it a “courageous” new approach that “underlines the clear aim to focus on the crucial priorities necessary to make Europe more competitive in order to deliver more growth and more jobs”.

Climate and energy

Last week, 25 MEPs wrote to Juncker to oppose a potential merger of the climate and energy portfolios. “A merger of the two portfolios would risk weakening both agendas,” the cross-party coalition warned. But outgoing Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard pointed out on the day that she was Denmark’s first “climate and energy minister” and the two have always gone hand in hand. Speaking on the fringes of all the bustle, she said her main worry was that with the Ukraine/Russia crisis looming so large as well as the Paris 2015 UN climate talks coming up, “how will one person do all the outreach that I and Commissioner Oettinger have done together to date?” She emphasised that it was more important than ever for heads of state and government to decide on the framework for a 2030 climate and energy policy on 23 October.

At the Forum für Zukunftenergien debate that evening, Michael Hager, chief of staff to current EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, said the 2030 package and gas stress tests would be two foundations for the new Commission to build on. He said an October deal on 2030 was not yet in the bag, but that it remained possible “with some goodwill”. On the stress tests, he said the Commission had received member state submissions but was now having to put them all together to see how they add up: member state x plans to get extra energy from member state y, which plans to use storage in member state z etc.

The main challenge for Cañete, believes Hager, is how to reunite climate and energy policy. If he fails, Bratušek will be right there to send his proposals back to him for another try.

Fit for the job

Miguel Arias Cañete will face a tough time in his hearing with the European Parliament later this month – perhaps the toughest out of any commissioner, according to reactions doing the rounds on Wednesday. “Cañete is a surprising choice, given his connections to the oil industry,” said Greenpeace EU managing director Mahi Sideridou. He appears to have a serious conflict of interest – recent Chairmanship of the Board and shares in two bunker fuel firms (companies that store oil as fuel for ships). He was also accused of sexism in the spring European election campaign, where he stood as an MEP. Some allege the 64-year-old is Juncker’s sacrificial lamb to the Parliament.

But nothing is certain at this stage. Spain’s former Agriculture, Food and Environment Minister will probably face MEPs from the Parliament’s Industry, Energy and Research, and Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committees at the end of the month (hearings are scheduled for 29 Sept-3Oct). If he survives, he could mean good news for interconnectors – these are a priority for Spain for the 2030 package.

Alenka Bratušek meanwhile, will be glad to get out of Slovenia, where she is being ravaged by the media. Slovenia’s first-ever female prime minister has been severely criticised back home for “nominating herself” as candidate for Brussels, as well as for her “high” salary and “selling out” to business interests – she has continued a wave of privatisation of state-owned companies started by a government previous to hers. She’s a relative newcomer to the political scene, coming from a background in political science and the ministry of finance to an elected post in the Slovenian Parliament in 2011. After a series of corruption scandals, she took over the country in early 2013. The economy has improved under her leadership.

Unlike many Central and Eastern European countries such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Slovenia has a strong track record in green policies, including renewables and energy efficiency. It also has a friendly rather than antagonistic relationship with Russia. Like Austria, it has spoken out in favour of Southstream, the gas pipeline project backed by Gazprom, which foresees an alternative route for Russian gas into Europe.

For now, stakeholders have their sights set on Cañete. Everyone wants a more connected up energy and climate policy. As Oettinger moves on to the connected world of the digital economy – his new portfolio as returning commissioner – Cañete will have to prove himself willing and up to the job of delivering on a 2030 energy and climate policy and security of supply – affordably, of course. Bratušek on the other hand, brings an interesting dynamic to the “Energy Union” idea as originally coined by Donald Tusk, newly nominated President of the European Council. A political survivor who’s shown herself capable of taking charge and getting things done, Bratušek is a wild card on which stakeholders are reserving judgement. For now.



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