EU’s new energy ‘super-commissioner’ fails to convince parliamentarians

A sweeping reorganization of Europe’s climate and energy management was thrown into question on Monday after a second lack-lustre and controversial commissioner confirmation hearing in the European Parliament in as many weeks.

Euro-deputies from across the political spectrum took to social media to sharply criticize what many described as worryingly weak performance from Slovene commissioner-designate Alenka Bratušek – the designated new super- commissioner or vice-president for ‘Energy Union’. This followed a controversy-ridden hearing for Europe’s incoming climate and energy commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete.

European Commission president-elect Jean-Claude Juncker had proposed a root-and-branch reorganization of the European executive, creating a tight new inner cabinet of seven super-commissioners that are intended to steer the work of the 20 other ‘normal’ commissioners.

Under the new system, a stand-alone climate change department had been eliminated. In its place, a joint climate and energy commissioner would work alongside five other commissioners covering areas such as environment, agriculture, transport, industry and science under the Energy Union super commissioner.

In this scenario, Spain’s commissioner-designate, Cañete, a Spanish conservative, would take the climate and energy portfolio, while vice-president Bratušek would manage the broader Energy Union brief.

But on Monday, Bratušek faced a grilling from deputies in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, responding only with repeated boilerplate statements about infrastructure and completing Europe’s internal energy market that left, right and Green MEPs subsequently said meant she was insufficiently familiar with her brief.

“Alenka Bratušek was too general in her answers and failed to convince us that she has the pro-EU track record necessary to push through the much-needed Energy Union,” said Krišjānis Kariņš, the spokesperson for the conservative European People’s Party grouping in the chamber’s powerful energy committee.

Deputies, which are tasked with approving or rejecting the proposed commission cabinet en masse rather than as individuals, came away no better informed as to which commissioner would hold the whip hand both in terms of European climate policy and international negotiations – Bratušek or Cañete.

Pressed by Dutch Green deputy Bas Eickhout as to who would represent the EU in UN climate talks, Bratušek was unable to answer.

The sizeable Green contingent in the parliament had been willing to back Bratušek as a counterweight to Cañete, who has criticized by environmental groups and the left of the house for weeks for his ties to the fossil-fuel industry. But Bratušek’s performance has thrown her candidacy in doubt, with the Greens and left deputies now speculating as to her replacement from Ljubljana. The right of the house appears to favour delaying her confirmation as well.

Slovene prime minister until two months ago, the liberal Bratušek is also under scrutiny for presenting herself as her country’s EU commission candidate after her party was wiped out in July elections. A domestic ethics investigation hangs over her nomination as commissioner. Bratušek’s support for increased coal-fired energy production under her Slovene premiership is another worry for climate-minded deputies.

Like Cañete, Bratušek left the parliament without giving the customary post-hearing press briefing.

Her comments to MEPs to some extent reflect the downgrade climate policy has suffered under Juncker’s presidency. In his briefing note to Bratušek, while embracing the need for “the EU to become the world number one in renewable energies, the president placed a more urgent priority on rapidly shifting Europe’s energy dependence on Russia.

The Bratušek debacle comes days after a similar rough hearing that euro-deputies gave Cañete. The former Spanish environment minister was sharply criticized by Greens and the left of the house for having only days ago sold shares in the oil companies Ducar and Petrologis, on whose boards his brother-in-law sits, and for supporting cuts to renewable energy spending while in government in Madrid.

With both Bratušek and Cañete possible targets should Juncker decide to reshuffle his cabinet in the wake of parliamentary opposition toward a number of other commissioner candidates, the incoming president may be forced to try an entirely different tack with his energy and climate strategy.

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