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Parliament delays new EU Commissioners – again

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The appointments of the designated EU climate chief Wopke Hoekstra and his would-be boss Maros Sefcovic have been delayed once more in the European Parliament, amid a political stalemate between the two biggest centre-right and centre-left parties.

When the EU’s climate czar Frans Timmermans went back to the Netherlands this summer, his portfolio was up for grabs. Den Haag nominated former Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra to be the bloc’s climate chief, while Sefcovic was to take charge of the Green Deal – the EU executive’s flagship initiative.

Both candidates had “failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to be confirmed already. Questions for clarifications to be sent now,” said Pascal Canfin, a French liberal who chairs the deciding ENVI committee.

With neither candidate managing to gather the four key groups – the European People’s Party (EPP), Socialists and Democrats, Renew Europe and the Greens – behind them, they will have to provide written questions in order to convince the sceptics.

Sefcovic is in the hot seat on several issues following a weak performance during his hearing. The largest group, the EPP, was “unhappy with many vague answers by Maros Sefcovic”, it said.

Questions that will be put to him include a request for a definitive timeline and commitment to several key environmental laws the Commission has yet to adopt: from chemical regulation revisions (REACH) and microplastics to animal welfare.

There have been discussions on these laws “for months”, stressed Canfin, the ENVI chair. “We know that these proposals are technically ready”, he added.

These questions will force the Commission to make a tough political call, with Sefcovic dependent on the backing from Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in order to make the statements lawmakers want to see.

“The decision in the end is mainly in President von der Leyen’s hands. Now it’s up to her to tell us what she wants to keep on delivering on some Green Deal files,” said Canfin.

In all, the appointment hearings have become a showdown between the EPP and S&D ahead of next June’s European elections, but also a greater struggle over the overall legislative agenda between Parliament and Commission.

But there is another, more personal question, that’ll be put to Sefcovic, given that his home country of Slovakia may soon be governed by a Kremlin loyalist: “Do you commit to defending the EU position on the energy embargo against Russia in all national capitals of the EU, including the one you know best?”

Meanwhile, the questions put to Hoekstra were on the softer side, owing to his clear commitment to a 90% climate target for 2040.

He’ll be expected to share in more detail what he worked on during his time at the McKinsey consultancy, “in a timely manner” long after the decision was made. Other questions will ask for details on the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies and clarification on the implementation of the bloc’s climate law.

Lastly, both candidates will have to demonstrate their respective understanding of technological neutrality – an EU principle to avoid favouring specific technologies.

“Because the question was raised both to Maros Sefcovic and Hoekstra. And the answers were quite different,” explained Canfin.

Thus, the question put to the two comes with a distinct French spin: “What is your vision of the best way to achieve technological neutrality and the need to foster a level playing field in the energy sector,” as the Frenchman Canfin laid out.

Should the responses, due by 7 am on Wednesday (4 October), be satisfactory, the decision makers of the parties are slated to meet at 8:30 and will have 90 minutes to come to a decision. If they do, Parliament can rubber-stamp the decision on Thursday.

Otherwise, there will be a delay until the next plenary meeting of the hemicycle.

At this point, few believe that just Hoekstra or only Sefcovic could pass – both have their respective parties’ backing, making the affair a de-facto package deal.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Nathalie Weatherald]

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