“Petrolhead” commissioner signals strategy shift for EU climate efforts

Last week’s controversy around Europe’s incoming climate and energy czar, Spanish conservative Miguel Arias Cañete, could signal a sharp break in the EU’s climate strategy under new European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker.

Cañete, an admitted lover of fast cars and a former oil-company investor, ran into fierce opposition from much of the European Parliament during his confirmation hearing in the chamber last week. Not surprising given that climate change was a centerpiece of the two-term presidency of Juncker’s predecessor, Portuguese former prime minister Jose Manuel Barroso.

Cañete’s candidacy for the position immediately ran into the buffers after environmental groups and the Greens in the parliament criticised him following his nomination by Madrid. Environmentalists attacked his role as environment minister in a government that slashed spending on renewable energy – a retreat from EU policy.

The UK’s Sunday Times newspaper dubbed him ‘Señor Petrolhead’ (paywall), and reported that he collects classic automobiles and participates in high-speed rallies. Meanwhile, the Spaniard was found to have only days ago sold shares in the oil companies Ducar and Petrologis on whose boards his brother-in-law sits.

Climate activists have declared Cañete to have unacceptable conflicts arising from his family interests. During the parliamentary hearing in Strasbourg, campaigners protested outside the chamber and internet-based pressure group Avaaz said over 400,000 European citizens had signed a petition against his candidacy.

Within the parliament, Cañete faced hard questioning from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) in what the European press described as “angry scenes”. Certainly, the Spanish former minister has provoked the strongest opposition amongst euro-deputies, who have also withheld confirmation from four other commissioner candidates.

For his part, Cañete told MEPs he remained committed to the outgoing commission’s pledge of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on 1990 levels by 2030, but he repeatedly dodged questions about his brother-in-law’s relationship with the two aforementioned companies.

The Greens and Left parties have registered strong opposition, declaring him to have “direct conflicts of interest”. Centre-left social democrats, the second largest grouping in the parliament, are also uncomfortable with the choice, but may be up for a deal with Conservatives about fellow social democrat Pierre Moscovici, whose hearing is this week. They are known to be uncomfortable with the French commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, perceiving him as likely to be soft on the sort of fiscal rigour they feel the still crisis-ridden Eurozone requires. Thus some mutual back-scratching may yet resolve the conflict.

Cañete left without the usual press conference that follows a hearing and the energy and environment committees of the parliament have delayed a vote on his candidacy until next week.

MEPs may only accept or reject the candidates for the European Commission en masse. Individual candidates cannot be picked off while others given a pass, hence the likely backroom hard bargaining between different political forces.

Nonetheless, even if the furore passes over, the incident marks a signal shift in EU climate strategy.

Under Juncker, a dedicated climate portfolio has been eliminated and the position of environment commissioner done away with as well. Europe’s ‘Green 10’ biggest environmental groups reacted with shock to what they believe is a marked downgrading of environment as primary policy area. They worry that these developments signal a coming roll back of EU commitments to on climate and other environmental areas in the wake of the economic crisis.

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