Slovenia’s Alenka Bratušek was condemned as vague, bland and ignorant of key energy issues at her hearing at the European Parliament on Monday afternoon. Bratušek, who from November is meant to lead Europe’s energy negotiations with Russia and take on a global climate deal, failed to convince MEPs she had the skills or integrity to become the EU’s new “Vice President for Energy Union”.
Most of Alenka Bratušek’s answers began with: “I feel I’m repeating myself…” and it was true, she resolutely stuck to empty EU jargon in almost every answer. The former Prime Minister of Slovenia has been nominated by new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to become his EU’s “Vice President for Energy Union”. This is a new post and many are wondering what it entails. Bratušek seems to be wondering the same thing. In her interrogation by MEPs on Monday afternoon, she failed to convince, not on her distance from a corruption scandal back home so much (although that has yet to be fully cleared up too) but on her knowledge of energy issues.
The European Parliament is due to vote on Team Juncker on 22 October. With nearly all of the hearings out of the way now, expect some portfolio reshuffles and perhaps a new face or two. The Parliament on Monday rejected Hungarian Tibor Navracsics for the job of culture and education commissioner for example, given Hungary’s dubious record on civil liberties in the recent past. He could still be commissioner, just with a different portfolio. Spaniard Miguel Arias Cañete meanwhile, candidate for Climate and Energy Commissioner, had his conflict of interest declaration (re)approved on Monday night. Bratušek now looks the more likely to fall.
Member states rule
She got off to a bad start. What should have been a source of pride and strength was turned on its head with the very first question: in rescuing Slovenia from a European bail-out, was she in fact un-European? Did she refuse EU help because she did not want the EU to “occupy” Slovenia? And what did this mean for the Energy Union? “We did not turn down assistance [but] managed our problems on our own,” she responded. She then went on to emphasize that an Energy Union for Europe would require a lot of cooperation between member states. What this Energy Union might look like however, remained unclear. The furthest she got was to say that it would be focused on energy security, not renewables, which would be left to member states: “Renewables are a member state competence. But energy security, we should reach agreement on at EU level.”
She repeatedly said that member states’ energy mix is purely a national competence. Yet the Commission clearly does have something to say about how we produce energy in Europe, most explicitly through the 2009 EU renewable energy directive it initiated, but also through climate policy and state aid rules for example.
Bratušek could not explain how she would work together with Climate and Energy Commissioner-to be Miguel Arias Cañete. The questions were clear: “Who will be responsible for the targets for energy efficiency or renewables? And if it’s you, what are your goals?” The answers were not clear: “I will coordinate the actions of several commissioners to bring together targets from several areas into one single shared objective. More important than who’s responsible, it’s important to set out ambitious goals and for all of us to achieve them and in the end we as Commission are responsible.”
Bratušek called for “ambitious” yet “realistic” goals on energy and climate change. For her, this appears to be “at least 27%” renewables in the European energy mix in 2030 and a 40% greenhouse gas emission reduction target – exactly as proposed by the European Commission. Her guiding light however, is not the current Commission but member states. Rather than suggesting that she or the Commission – or indeed the European Parliament! – could lead on these issues, she repeatedly insisted that member states call the shots.
“I truly believe renewables are the future of Europe. This is a path that will lead us to greater energy independence. However it is also true that things cannot be changed overnight. At least 27% is the goal member states are willing to support”, she said. She also said, “I am myself prepared to advocate higher binding goals in the field of climate change, but we need to be realistic – there is no point if we do not achieve them. Without member states, the Commission will not be able to achieve much.”
The message was loud and clear: I will do what member states tell me do to. Where is leadership from Brussels? More than one MEP accused her of describing the difficulties of establishing polices in these areas, rather than suggesting how she might go about it. She did ecognise climate change as part of her portfolio and as inseparably bound up with energy security. Her goal for the UN climate talks in Paris in 2015 is to agree “binding targets on climate change for all”. She said she supported the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) and a proposal for a Market Stability Reserve, but did not speak out in favour of an earlier (pre-2020) start date for it as Cañete did. Bratušek said several times it is also important to invest in R&D to improve fossil fuel technologies.
Infrastructure is everything
Her favourite word was “infrastructure”. For Bratušek, even more so than for Cañete, the EU internal energy market is a physical one. The market design element of completing the internal market received scarce mention. Instead, her way of making the internal market happen seems to be by building interconnectors. She did not offer new ideas on getting them funded though, referring hopefully to a “large share” of Juncker’s €300 billion investment package for growth, jobs and competitiveness. Additional investment from the European Investment Bank could be an option, she said. The rest would come from the private sector.
Smart grids are also part of her vision, though she did not say what she thinks can be delivered and when. “Some [projects] are further ahead, others not. Those that are ready to go will be supported quickly. Others will require more time.”
To questions about energy security and resilience, she responded in the main with “internal market” and “infrastructure”. The single concrete action she proposed in this context is to draw up, in the short term, an emergency plan – then admitted that’s what the Commission is in fact already doing with its gas stress tests. To top up any lost gas from Russia, she would look to Norway and the Mediterranean. But she did not respond to a question about an eastern Mediterranean gas hub to exploit gas discoveries around Cyprus. Diversification is important, she said – into renewables and efficiency and of supply routes. On South Stream, she answered as Cañete did: yes, it can be built, but only if it fully respects all EU legislation: “All investments will be subject to the same rules, no exceptions. We need the hardware and software rules if we want the market to function.”
She also noted that shale gas is “certainly one of the options”. The role of the Commission here is to ensure all environmental standards are respected and enforced, she said. Certain US practices “cannot” simply be transferred to Europe.
Uninformed and naive
To a question about state aid for new nuclear power at Hinkley Point C in the UK – the Commission is due to announce its decision this week – she pleaded ignorance of the case in question, saying simply: “State aid cannot be given if the rules are not respected.” This left some MEPs speechless, such as German Socialist Matthias Groote, a former chair of the environment committee. For Groote, her becoming Vice President for Energy Union is a “no-go” after her dearth of knowledge in the hearing. She did not answer several other questions, including on how to deal with member states that flout EU law, on advanced fuels and on solar panel dumping from China. On nuclear, the role of Brussels is to “set standards”, she said, which it had done.
At times, Bratušek seemed almost naïve. She suggested Brussels could make a difference on taxation – despite tax decisions requiring unanimity. A 2011 proposal to tax fuels also according to their carbon emissions for example, has yet to be agreed. When it is, it will probably be unrecognisable from the original plan that foresaw diesel costing more than petrol. “If we are serious about the Energy Union I think we can reach agreement on this particular aspect,” Bratušek said however. “We need higher tax for those who pollute more.” She was similarly optimistic about energy prices. “Prices for energy can be reduced, I’m convinced of that.” How? “By increasing the internal market through better infrastructure.”
Finally, Bratušek has her own “brother-in-law” problem – a corruption investigation back in Slovenia that she says does not involve her. “I respect the law. I have never been at odds with the law.”
In response to repeated questioning over how she nominated herself, Bratušek repeated that Slovenia sent a list of three candidates to Juncker and that he chose her. Back home, “none of the institutions came to the conclusion that corruption took place.” This left at least some MEPs, which did not understand the case to be fully cleared up, unsatisfied. In any case, in response to a question over whether she would step down if found guilty of unethical behavior, she gave no answer.
Bratušek is a liberal and rumours were circulating before the hearing that she was doomed to fall (to be replaced by… current EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger? That was indeed a suggestion doing the rounds). If the Slovenian struggled to explain her portfolio and role, she was not alone in this. More of Juncker’s designated Vice Presidents are having difficulties. They are part of a team, they will respect each other’s mandates and they are not superior to “ordinary” Commissioners, they say. But initial doubts about the role and power of these VPs – who will not have directorate-generals of their own to call on – appear increasingly well-founded. What will they do? Will Cañete brief Bratušek or the other way round?
Bratušek’s poor performance has done Cañete a favour. The centre-right EPP and centre-left S&D groups would be happy to see her go – she’s a liberal after all – and when they pair up, they tend to get their way. Today is the last official day of the hearings and a meeting on what to do about Bratušek is scheduled for tonight.