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Jean-Claude Juncker in a moment of satisfaction following his election by the European Parliament as President of the Commission. But now, will his Commissioners implement his vision? Photo: European Parliament.
Jean-Claude Juncker in a moment of satisfaction following his election by the European Parliament as President of the Commission. But now, will his Commissioners implement his vision? Photo: European Parliament.
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How will the new EU team line up on GMOs, TTIP and energy?

Lawrence Woodward

11th September 2014

We have a new European Commission - so what does it mean for the environment, GMOs and trade negotiations? Lawrence Woodward can't help feeling that the best part of the package is Commission President Juncker himself. Now, will his 'team' pull together and work to deliver his vision? We can't quite count on it.

To me, it is simply not right that under the current rules, the Commission (EC) is legally forced to authorise new organisms for import and processing even though a clear majority of Member States is against.

The new EU President says he will be looking for a more democratic approach to GMO authorisations and transatlantic trade.

He is also making radical and ambitious proposals for an Energy Union that will be "the world's number one in renewable energies". But are his Commissioners - 'Team Juncker' - fit for purpose?

Back in July the new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, set out his political agenda for the incoming Commission.

In it he signalled a new and welcome approach to the Commission's attitude to GMOs, the proposed Transatlantic Investment Partnership (TTIP), energy and climate change.

But it's not clear how much the corporate gang have to worry about. There is considerable doubt that the incumbents of the key posts in agriculture, environment, health and food safety, energy and climate change will be able - or even want, to follow Juncker's lead.

An unpopular move - with the GMO lobby

This week he finalised the portfolios of the new Commissioner team and reiterated his message which was not well received by some corporate interests - in particular the biotech lobby.

"We believe this will not be positive", said André Goig, chairman of EuropaBio (European Association of Bioindustries) and a regional director of Syngenta.

In his speech Juncker said he intended "to review the legislation applicable to the authorisation of GMOs" and indicated he would be seeking a more democratic approach.

"To me, it is simply not right that under the current rules, the Commission (EC) is legally forced to authorise new organisms for import and processing even though a clear majority of Member States is against."

This was a reference to the notorious vote where a majority of EU states opposed to the authorisation of a GMO maize variety were over ruled by a minority in favour of approval due to the 'weighting' of votes cast by some larger - and pro-GMO - member states led by the UK.

Juncker also made the highly significant point that "The Commission should be in a position to give the majority view of democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice, notably when it comes to the safety of the food we eat and the environment in which we live."

More good news - TTIP, Food safety

He followed this up with a seemingly uncompromising and welcome assurance on the current EU/US negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

"I will also be very clear that I will not sacrifice Europe's safety, health, social and data protection standards or our cultural diversity on the altar of free trade."

The good news of the appointments is that the Health and Food Safety portfolio - which includes the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) - has gone to the Lithuanian Health Minister, Vytenis Andriukaitis.

He has a reputation for supporting state regulation over industry and is said to have a "mistrust of the private sector and the market in general."

This is exactly what is needed to offset the recent EC tendency to seek reduced regulation and to tackle the much criticised, pro-GMO EFSA which has consistently been too close to industry.

Bad news for agriculture and environment?

Other positions may be problematic.

The Environment portfolio - a crucial one for the GMO cropping issue - has gone to Karmenu Vella - who doesn't appear to have ever said anything about GMOs. But his pro-business and anti-regulation stance whilst Malta's Minister of Tourism doesn't bode well.

Ireland's Phil Hogan has been given the Agriculture portfolio which also includes the issue of GMO crops as well as agriculture's role in TTIP.

Hogan does not have a particularly illustrious reputation in government - better known for his gaffes than his achievements. He has no record on agriculture and it is hard to find if he has any views on genetic engineering but he is said to have 'liberal' views on trade and is likely to be close to the UK position on farming issues.

Energy and Climate Change - a merger or a mess up?

For the first time within the EC, Junkers has created a new tier of Vice Presidents who will act as his "filters", "right arms" or possibly filtering right arms, in an attempt to both "streamline" and "integrate" policies.

Slovenia's ex-Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek will lead the EU's energy policy as Vice President for Energy Union with the objective of bringing about "a resilient Energy Union, with a forward-looking climate change policy."

She is tasked with steering the work of the Commissioners for Climate Action and Energy; Transport and Space; Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs; Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Regional Policy, Agriculture and Rural Development; and Research, Science and Innovation.

At the same time the portfolios of Climate Action and Energy have been merged and given to the former Spanish environment minister Miguel Arias Cañete.

As well as reporting to Bratušek, he has to report to the Vice President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness: An arrangement which reflects the schizophrenia or - to put it more kindly - the balancing act, of trying to limit climate relevant emissions whilst pursuing market competitiveness and economic growth.

Sustainability 'relegated to the margins'

Some environmental groups are concerned about the wobble and direction of Cañete's balance; pointing to his ties to the oil industry in Spain and to his role as environment minister in removing subsidies for renewable energy.

He is a controversial appointment and there is also a more than a touch of controversy about Bratušek. She has been severely criticised in Slovenia for "nominating herself" as candidate for the EC - which many regard as a corrupt act - as well as for her "high" salary and "selling out" to business interests.

But the main concern is that these new structures will bring confusion rather than clarity and inertia rather integration.

Everyone wants a connected energy and climate policy and some environmentalists like Wendel Trio, director of Climate Action Network Europe feel it is too soon to tell if that apparent lack of clarity about the new arrangements and appointments will pose a problem.

Others believe that in the restructuring of portfolios, environment and climate action have been marginalised, according to Jeremy Wates, Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau (EEB):

"Instead of putting sustainability central to his new team, Juncker has decided to relegate it to the margins by scrapping the dedicated posts of a climate and an environment commissioner and appointing a deregulation first Vice-President to put a competitiveness filter on all initiatives."

Coming up - crucial Parliamentary hearings

All Vice Presidents and Commissioners will play a part in the TTIP negotiations and we have to hope that President Juncker's statement means what it says and that 'Team Juncker' gets behind it.

There are clearly significant differences in the underlying views of Commissioners and as the TTIP negotiations progress tensions will emerge.

At which point the position taken by, firstly Germany, and secondly by the European Parliament (EP), will become pivotal.

It is hard to gauge at this stage how far the composition of the newly elected EP will alter the stance taken by the outgoing one.

All members of 'Team Juncker' have to appear before, and be approved by, the EP in the next few weeks. Those hearings will be very instructive.

 


 

Lawrence Woodward is founder and director of GM Education, where this article was originally published.He is also Principal Policy Advisor at the Elm Farm Organic Research Centre.

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