From 30 September - 8 October 2019, newly elected Members of the European Parliament grilled the 26 nominees for the European Commission, to evaluate their “general competence and independence, but also their European commitment”. Fern followed the Commissioners’ hearings through the “forest lens”.
Virginijus Sinkevičius, Lithuania’s 28-year-old nominee for the Commission’s Environment and Oceans portfolio, put biodiversity, the circular economy, oceans, fisheries and zero pollution on his list of priorities. Yet he forgot to prioritise forests and failed to explain what the EU should do to curb deforestation caused by our consumption of forest-risk commodities.
Asked how he would to tackle deforestation, he replied vaguely that the EU needs deforestation-free supply chains, to be achieved through improved monitoring mechanisms and labelling. He didn’t elaborate on plans to implement the recent EU Communication on stepping up action to address deforestation and restore the world’s forests, which should be a key guide for the new Commission. It remains to be seen whether Sinkevičius will help fulfil the promise that this would be the greenest Commission Europe has ever seen.
The performance of Janusz Wojciechowski, the Polish candidate for the Agriculture portfolio was weak and vague. He claimed to support small farmers who maintain a low density of animals and use feed from their own farm, rather than imports of soy from Brazil or Argentina, yet provided no substance about his plans regarding forests. When concerns were raised about the impact of the Mercosur (FW 248) and Vietnam Free Trade Agreements, he replied that farmers should not be a victim of international trade.
It was unsettling that the Commissioner-designate for Trade Phil Hogan said he did not imagine the bloc would advise Europeans to eat less meat, although meat consumption helps drive forest destruction, and climate experts agree that “drastic change” is needed to combat climate change. He also felt that Europe was not lacking Sustainability Impact Assessments (SIA) despite the SIA for the Mercosur trade deal that was concluded last June still being available (FW 247). More positively, in response to MEP Heidi Hautala’s question about mandatory due diligence regarding deforestation, he said he would support such legislation.
Energy Commissioner-elect Kadri Simson managed to say very little during the energy committee hearing on 3 October. The biggest excitement came when one MEP let Simson know the breaking news that Estonia had changed its mind and decided to back EU carbon neutrality by 2050. Little was said about how the EU would achieve its climate and energy aims, but Simson reiterated that the European Green Deal would be a political priority.
The Finnish Commissioner-designate for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen stated that she intends to prioritise gender equality and stressed the need for a holistic approach towards implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. She also underlined the importance of the European Green Deal, which should include a dimension that ‘breaks the silos’ of traditional donor-recipient, North-South relationships, in order to engage on equal footing with emerging economies. On the issue of corporate responsibility, she allowed for the possibility of EU regulatory action; civil society is eager to see how this will progress.
Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President-Designate for the European Green Deal, was unflinching as he spoke of the threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. He also said the EU could ‘screw up’ the promise of the European Green Deal if the opportunity it offers to give EU citizens better food security, cleaner air and water, and better means of heating is not seized. He insisted that strong EU leadership over the next 100 days is needed to formulate legislation to meet 2050 goals, and that there would be a positive knock-on effect worldwide. To that effect he intends to enshrine EU climate neutrality in an ambitious EU climate law within the first 100 days.
Building on the Commission’s recent Communication on deforestation, he said he wants the EU to set a positive example at the next Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of Parties. He intends to develop a strategy to pursue a significant EU-wide reforestation initiative – without this, Europeans cannot ask tropical forested nations to do the same. Throughout his discourse he stressed the need to work in partnership with producer countries. However, he failed to speak about the Human Rights Due Diligence Regulation that he previously defended, insisting instead on greater transparency regarding forest-risk commodities. Set to supervise the Common Agriculture Policy and regional policy, Timmermans will be in charge of two-thirds of the EU budget.
Overall, the environment and climate were clearly on the proposed Commissioners’ agendas – a fairly positive start. It was disappointing, however, that firm intent and support for binding rules on corporate due diligence were not more forthcoming, and that most Commissioners-designate had to be prodded to speak about forests and their role in battling climate change. If the Conference of Presidents closes the hearing process on 17 October, the plenary will vote on this group of Commissioners on 23 October.