Sweden lands EU environment commissioner job

Margot Wallström to take over from Ritt Bjerregaard as Prodi commissioners revealed

Responsibility for drafting new EU environment policies will remain in Scandinavian hands under the next European Commission, incoming president Romano Prodi announced today. Sweden's Margot Wallström will take over from Ritt Bjerregaard of Denmark, who finally lost her battle to remain her country's nominated European Commissioner only last night.

Two other new commissioners were rumoured in recent weeks to be candidates for the post - German Green Michaele Schreyer and British Conservative Chris Patten. They have instead been given the budget and external relations portfolios respectively. There is no sign of any commissioner having been given overall responsibility for sustainable development (ENDS Daily 19 May). However, the energy and transport portfolios have been bundled together and potentially given more political clout under the leadership of Spanish Conservative Loyola de Palacio, who will also be one of two Commission vice-presidents.

Reflecting Mr Prodi's desire for reform and greater accountability after the scandals which led to the mass resignation of the previous Commission, Ms Wallström and her fellow commissioners will preside over smaller and leaner departments.

Her cabinet (political office) will be more multinational than existing ones, and she will be physically located alongside her department, rather than in a separate building set apart for commissioners. The old system of numbering departments with Roman numerals has also been scrapped, in favour of short, self-explanatory names.

Regarded at home as a very clever and competent politician, Ms Wallström's track record as a quick learner and uncompromising negotiator should - according to senior figures in Swedish environmental circles - more than compensate for a lack of environmental policy experience.

Her reputation for toughness was honed when defending social security payments from proposed cuts during her most recent Swedish cabinet job, as health and social affairs minister between 1996-98. One of Sweden's youngest ever parliamentarians when first elected to represent the Social Democrats 20 years ago at the age of 24, she was one of the leading brains behind the party's successful re-election campaign last autumn.

Since then she has taken a second break from formal politics working for an international media company in Sri Lanka. Along with earlier experience in banking, observers say this will give a valuable grounding in the "real world" outside politics. One commentator described her as a "good example of a female politician who has not become a man".

Reflecting current Swedish interests, her priorities are expected to include climate change, a focus on integrated product policy and work towards phasing out toxic substances. In the negotiations on EU enlargement, she is likely to insist that new member countries demonstrate full compliance with existing legislation. Many environmental specialists have expressed relief that the portfolio will remain within the Nordic region, which is still at the cutting edge of policy innovation in Europe.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111.

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