The President’s brain is missing

juncker_brainPresident-elect Juncker today enacted a long-rumoured move to combine the Climate Action and Energy portfolios in the new European Commission.

There is no strategic rational for this and, if confirmed, it reduces our capacities to respond adequately to the global climate crisis both at home and abroad.

With the merger of the environment and fisheries portfolios, environmental protection overall has also been weakened by the new line-up.

Everywhere else in the European political arena environment and energy matters are with good reason handled separately. Greenhouse gas pollution and energy systems are quite different phenomena and so are measured and regulated in different ways.

In the Treaties, there is an environment chapter and there is an energy chapter. The environment chapter was specifically amended by the 2009 Lisbon treaty so as to make explicit reference to climate change and to frame this as an global issue.

The energy chapter, introduced only in 2009 also by Lisbon, is recognised as being the weakest of all treaty provisions governing European energy systems, that also includes e.g. provisions on single market, competition, free movement of goods and research.

In Parliament, there are two well-established committees, one for each set of issues. In the Council of Ministers, there two well-established ministerial configurations, one for each set of issues. In neither institution is there any suggestion of changing these arrangements.And in the Court of Justice, cases will judged in both areas on their respective constitutional provisions, which may be similar (both shared competences) but are not the same, as well as specific legislative acts.

Today’s wrong-headed move therefore will only create more confusion, further slow climate action and make Europe’s overall response to the global crisis weaker. Moreover, Miguel Arias Cañete, the Spaniard nominated to lead the new combined portfolio, will — if for other reasons he survives Parliamentary scrutiny — find himself facing twice the amount of inter-institutional and external representation and double the amount of interest group lobbying.

This could however be mitigated with the help of the new vice-president Slovene Alenka Bratušek for an as yet undefined “energy union”.

With the possible exception of energy savings, Juncker’s mission letters to Bratušek and Cañete are vague, leaving agenda priorities still to be determined at a later date, for example in next month’s European Council.

People matter most

The failures of the second Barroso commission to make adequate headway on the climate crisis were mostly down to people and not structure.

Barroso was first and foremost for ten years a weak president, disinterested in environmental issues, and toadying-up to the European Council (of which formerly he was a member) instead of leading an independent institution as guardian of the treaties. Juncker may lack excitement, but he is a little more his own man than Barroso was.

Second, the odd couple – Hedegaard and Oettinger – were never a team and generally set-out to undermine each other. Both were sent to Brussels by national leaders that for domestic reasons wanted to get rid of them. Both were conservatives too. In the case of Oetti, this meant he was simply captured by German heavy industry, while Hedegaard was too conservative to take any real risks or speak truthfully about the seriousness of the climate situation. She also to some extent was steered by Danish energy priorities.

Third, and less obvious but perhaps most important for climate as a global threat, the new External Action Service since 2009 has also had weak leadership and an agenda crowded-out by short-run crises such as the Iranian nuclear stand-off. Even though EU foreign ministers gave EEAS a mandate for climate diplomacy, so far it has hardly used it. With the continued failure of the technocratic UNFCCC to reach any meaningful agreement on its ultimate objective (Article 2),  the only way to change this dire outlook for the world will be with concerted efforts in the international diplomatic arena.

The ghost in the machine

But who is to blame in the Berlaymont for Juncker aiming so low today? The rumour of a potential CLIMA-ENER merger has been going around for years, long before Juncker was ever mooted for the job he is now about to assume.

Previously I thought the merger idea was a deliberate false rumour by BUSINESSEUROPE (or some such bad-guy outfit) as a way to damage DG CLIMA’s influence. While this may still not be untrue, I think now the main culprit is the EC’s long-serving secretary general Catherine Day.

Previously the director general for DG Environment, in the days when it was responsible for climate action, Day has been in the SG hot seat for almost nine years, two years long than the maximum allowed under the Commission’s own senior staff rotation policy.

Day has already been accused by others this year of being the main mover behind shaping the inconsistent and inadequate 2030 climate-energy framework proposals tabled in January and in particular for her preference for climate measures (such as ETS) over energy measures (such as efficiency or renewables).

Day will retire from her post next year, leaving Juncker and his colleagues to manage her legacy. Recovery in a policy sense from the Barroso-Day years will take time. Meanwhile the extent to which Juncker and his new colleagues might act in teams and might think for themselves remains to be tested in the months and years to come.


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