Juncker’s risky Commission gamble

Given the Commission’s unflattering history when it comes to Commissioners placing their nation state’s interests above the responsibilities of their own portfolio, this is clearly a risky direction for the current Commission president to strike out in.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has ended weeks of speculation regarding Malta’s nominee Karmenu Vella by assigning him the environment portfolio.

Confirmation of this appointment will depend on the outcome of a European Parliamentary hearing to take place later this month, and as such is by no means certain. Experience suggests that there may be last-minute changes to the specific list of responsibilities in Vella’s portfolio. Malta’s first Commissioner, Joe Borg, for example, had initially been earmarked for the development portfolio (during a transitional phase for new member states in 2004). He eventually landed maritime affairs and fisheries instead, after failing to impress at his first EP hearing.

It remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself in 2014. Much depends on how convincingly Vella will field questions on areas in which the veteran Maltese parliamentarian has no direct political experience. But regardless of whether or not Vella passes this crucial test next month, there has already been an unfavourable reaction to news of his assigned portfolio.

Environmental NGOs have expressed concern that “the environment” – an enormous and highly sensitive responsibility, which previously took up an entire Commission portfolio unto itself – has apparently been ‘downgraded’ to a single platform within a much broader portfolio that also covers fisheries and maritime affairs… both complex and politically sensitive areas in their own right.

Their concern is understandable. All three areas require considerable hands-on experience in the field, and all are susceptible to lobbying by sizeable business interests. So Juncker’s decision to entrust these areas to a man whose political experience involves primarily the very different arenas of tourism and economic policy – and who was part of a government that is also heavily criticised for mishandling environmental issues – is likely to provoke controversy.

The rationale behind this choice may also raise questions about the credibility of the Commission as a whole. Juncker seems to have handpicked his designated Commissioners to handle precisely those areas in which their own nation-states have had major clashes with the EU.

Malta’s entanglements with the European Commission, for instance, have so far nearly all centred on environmental issues. In 2007 the European Commission took Malta to the European Court of Justice over its controversial decision to allow hunting in spring after accession in 2004. Malta is already paying fines for not decommissioning the Marsa power station and exceeding the 20,000-hour derogation and operating at higher emission limits than those allowed in the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive directive.

In future there may be similar proceedings in case of failure to meet the EU’s carbon reduction scheme, which envisages 20% of Malta’s power output deriving from renewable sources by 2020.

Yet the man responsible for all this at Commission level (pending confirmation by the EP) will come to the post directly from a government which has resisted the Commission on these same issues. More cogently, any future decision to open new infringement procedures against Malta on environmental issues will now have to be taken by a former member of the same government responsible for all the above situations in the first place.

This may not qualify as a ‘conflict of interest’ in the strictest sense of the word; but it will certainly be a challenge for Vella to put aside his own national and political allegiances for the sake of environmental issues in which he never previously expressed very much interest in the first place.

The same pattern repeats itself throughout the rest of Juncker’s proposed Commission line-up. The UK’s commissioner-designate, Jonathan Hill, for example, has been assigned responsibility for the financial services sector: even though the UK has been inveterately critical of the EU’s official policy regarding the same issue. Likewise, Greece’s nominee, Dimitris Avramopoulos, has been offered the migration portfolio: migration being a major bone of contention between Greece and the EU, following the collapse of its own asylum system last year.

More controversially still, Juncker has selected a nominee from Hungary’s right-wing government – widely criticised over human and civil rights issues – to head the Commission for Civil Rights.

Vella’s nomination for the environment portfolio seems to be a continuation of the same strategy. Malta is openly defying the Commission on the issue of spring hunting; yet Juncker has asked Malta’s Commissioner to revise European legislation on wildlife conservation, when his own country has a very clear vested interest in changing that law to permit (among other things) hunting in spring.

Given the Commission’s unflattering history when it comes to Commissioners placing their nation state’s interests above the responsibilities of their own portfolio, this is clearly a risky direction for the current Commission president to strike out in.

To be fair, however, one cannot a priori discount the possibility that Commissioner Karmenu Vella may rise above the pressures emanating from his own former government, and take policy decisions which will truly result in greater environmental protection at European level.

But nor can one discount the likelier scenario in which Commissioner Vella may feel (like so many other Commissioners before him) disposed to legislate in a way which advantages the government of his own country.

Only one thing can confidently be asserted at this stage. Neither the EP hearings, nor the Commission post itself, will be an easy ride for Malta’s former tourism minister.

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