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Green reputations at stake

The European commission’s announcement on 23 January of a package of major climate and energy measures was a singular occasion. It was perhaps the most significant environment policy event of the past decade. The individual proposals had been well trailed, and sprang no surprises, but their collective weight was still impressive.
The package may well be the defining achievement of the current commission’s five-year tenure, especially if it is agreed by April next year, as officials hope. This is the informal deadline after which much EU policy-making will shut down ahead of European parliament elections in June. By the time MEPs reconvene in September, a new commission will be in place.
The announcement shows how central to the EU’s political agenda climate has become. It also gives a chance to review the environmental credentials of some of the key commissioners.
Most interesting is commission president José Manuel Barroso. In speeches to MEPs and journalists, Mr Barroso was genuinely passionate about the plans’ importance for Europe. The continent now has no stronger climate policy champion. If his enthusiasm holds, the commission should overcome the political resistance that is bound to emerge to parts of the package.
It is extraordinary how far the Portuguese has travelled since February 2005, when he compared his feelings for the three pillars of sustainability to his three children. He loved the economy, the environment and society equally, he insisted. But the economy was the sick child that needed his attention the most. Three years later, the environment is his favourite, however healthy the others.
The climate package is also a victory for environment commissioner Stavros Dimas. There were suspicions that Mr Barroso appointed the Greek as an end-of-career functionary with no green policy background who would not resist a shrinking of EU environment policy ambition. And indeed, though highly engaging one on one, Mr Dimas is in public a much less effective policy advocate. But in his quiet way he has been highly successful in fighting his corner. Despite the outward hesitancy, his officials say he has mastered his subject and – once convinced of a course of action – he argues hard for it with his colleagues.
The evidence bears this out. He defended seven thematic policy strategies and kept the Reach chemical policy reform afloat when all were perceived to be at threat. And on the climate agenda he has pulled Mr Barroso firmly onto his side.
In this way he has eclipsed the industry commissioner Günter Verheugen, long the environment policy community’s favourite bad guy. The German’s department had no formal policies to present in January. However, as the commission’s vice-president and the man responsible for the sector that will be asked to do most to meet the new climate targets,
Mr Verheugen could easily have made an appearance alongside his colleagues. His absence was telling. Later this year he will present plans for an EU “sustainable industrial policy” – no doubt one of his last opportunities to win over the green doubters.
Meanwhile, Latvian Andris Piebalgs, responsible for energy, confirmed his reputation as the most influential of the new member state commissioners with an assured presentation of new EU renewable energy targets. And the Dutch competition commissioner Neelie Kroes chipped in with fresh EU rules allowing governments to grant bigger subsidies for green investment.
How these commissioners shepherd their proposals through debates with EU governments and MEPs over the coming months will define to a large extent their reputations when their term expires next year.
Paul Kaye, consultant editor

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