The shape of the next European Commission: what does it mean for environmental policy?

On 10th September, President-elect of the European Commission (EC), Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker, announced his new team of commissioners-designate, accompanied by a significant restructuring of the Commission. This reorganisation includes a number of changes to the way that European environmental policy is framed and delivered.

Juncker’s intention is to streamline the Commission around five priority areas responding to Europe’s biggest political challenges: “getting people back to work in decent jobs, triggering more investment, making sure banks lend to the real economy again, creating a connected digital market, a credible foreign policy and ensuring Europe stands on its own feet when it comes to energy security”.  Six vice-Presidents have been appointed to lead “project teams” for each of these themes.

What does this mean for environmental policy? For the first time in twenty-five years, there will not be a European Commissioner for whom the environment is their sole responsibility. Rather, the new Commissioner-designate, Karmenu Vella of Malta, will assume responsibility for the twin portfolios of Environment and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. The EC explains this decision as reflecting “the twin logic of “Blue” and “Green” growth” and the integrated role that environment and maritime policies can play in “creating jobs, preserving resources, stimulating growth and encouraging investment.”

This emphasis on the economic dimensions of environmental policy is underlined in President Juncker’s “mission letter” to Commissioner Vella, which outlines that he will liaise most closely with the new Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, and affirms the position that “protecting the environment and maintaining our competitiveness can go hand-in-hand, and environment policy also plays a key role in creating jobs and stimulating investment.” Other significant priorities include an in-depth review of the Birds and Habitats Directives with a view to reform, as well as the implementation of the recently agreed reform of the Common Fisheries Policy.

A number of environmental NGOs have responded critically to Juncker’s proposals, with Green 10, a pan-European alliance including Birdlife Europe and WWF, articulating a number of concerns. Primarily, they consider that the move to combine the Environment and Maritime Affairs and Fisheries portfolios represents a “downgrading” of the EU’s environmental commitments. Similarly, the European Environmental Bureau has expressed “deep concern” at an agenda they perceive to be focused too heavily on deregulation and economic growth. In the UK, both the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts have highlighted the risks of unnecessary reform to the Birds and Habitats Directives.

Certainly, President Juncker’s promises of reform mean that we are likely to see significant changes in environmental policy during the term of the next European Commission. Gaining a better understanding of the links between the environment and the economy, as exemplified by the Natural Capital Initiative, will be crucial. Similarly, dialogue at a European level both between scientists and with policy makers, as highlighted by the British Ecological Society’s forthcoming joint annual meeting with the Société Française d’Ecologie, appears increasingly important.