Hoekstra grilled at European parliament for EU commissioner role

Wopke Hoekstra being grilled. Photo: EU press point

Former Dutch foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra told members of the European parliament’s environment committee that ‘no stone should be left unturned’ in finding money for climate action, as he sought their approval for his appointment as EU climate commissioner.

During a three-hour hearing in Strasbourg, MEPs assessed Hoekstra’s credentials to replace Frans Timmermans, who resigned to run in November’s national election as leader the GroenLinks/PvdA slate.

Nominated by the outgoing government, Hoekstra said he will be “driven by facts and science” and he aims to “give voice to the next generation”. “At least once a week my children ask about two things: the war in Ukraine and climate change,” he said.

He cast himself as a candidate for “continuity, ambition and outreach,” saying he will carry on with the European Green Deal and EU’s climate neutrality target by 2050, but he will not be a “caretaker” because “it wouldn’t do justice to the scale of the challenge and it’s not in my nature”.

On specific policies, Hoekstra said he will set the scene for an EU greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 90% by 2040 over 1990, as recommended by the European scientific advisory board, an independent body advising the EU on climate change.

The proposals will be presented in the form of a non-binding communication, rather than legislation, to allow citizens and the next European parliament and commission (elected next year) “a say on what is feasible,” he argued.

He added that “fossil fuels must become history.” In this regard, he said he would seek to progress on the reform of energy taxation rules, ending tax exemptions on kerosene for EU flights. The file is currently stuck amid disagreement among EU governments.

A key priority will be climate finance. He called for a global aviation levy and said the revenues from the EU carbon market (the emissions trading scheme) and the carbon border adjustment mechanism (a new tariff on goods imported from countries with less stringent climate policies) could be used to compensate poorer states for the damages they suffer due to global warming. This is a key request in international climate negotiations.

He also said lifestyle and consumption patterns need to be addressed, and those most in need will have to be supported in the transition.

GroenLinks MEP Bas Eickhout, vice-chair of the committee, and several other MEPs from the left, said they were surprised by the statements, given Hoekstra’s past at Shell and McKinsey.

“Looking at your CV so far, you have not really been a climate champion. How credible is what you’re promising here?” Eickhout asked regarding fossil fuel subsidies.

French MEP Marie Toussaint requested more information on the work Hoekstra did at McKinsey. He responded he never worked for the commission, nor for Shell or any other oil company while he was with the consultancy firm.

Dutch MEP Anja Hazekamp, from the pro-animal PvdD, asked if he will have the courage to cut production and consumption of meat and dairy, and initiate the transition for farmers. He said the sector must become sustainable but “we need an approach which leads to fewer livestock, rather than some kind of cast iron target.”

Hoekstra was also asked about the proposed EU nature restoration law, which requires member states to restore at least 20% of the EU’s land and maritime areas by 2030, and all ecosystems in poor to bad quality by 2050.

This summer, the European People’s Party (EPP), to which Hoekstra’s CDA party is affiliated, pushed for the withdrawal of the law without succeess. Hoekstra said he supports the commission proposal and reminded that commissioners have to be independent from party politics.

Hoekstra concluded that Europe faces three major challenges, climate change, security and a push back on democracy, and technological disruption. These will be the focus of the next 20 to 30 years and can only be solved together, he argued.

Next steps

The hearing was followed by a closed-door meeting of the chairmen and women of relevant committees and group representatives. They had to communicate their conclusions to the presidents of the European parliament political parties for the final decision.

However, the environment committee chair Pascal Canfin announced late in the evening that the decision on the nomination was suspended until Tuesday afternoon at 2 pm.

Hoekstra is supported by the conservative EPP but will need to vote of the centre-left to secure his approval on the post.

Finance minister

Many in Europe remember the prospective Commisisoner as the hawkish finance minister who in 2020, at the start of the pandemic, attacked southern European countries on the state of their finances and resisted joint debt to fund the recovery.

In his opening remarks on Monday, Hoekstra said: “At the start of the pandemic I showed insufficient regard for the difficulties faced by some member states. I feel that I should have done that differently.” During the debate, which was interrupted several times due to technical problems, he addressed several MEPs in other languages.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen proposed splitting the role previously held by Timmermans between commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič, a Slovak social-democrat who would take over the coordination of the Green Deal, and Hoekstra, who would focus on climate change.

Šefčovič’s hearing will take place on Tuesday morning. According to Politico, the fate of the two commissioners will be intertwined, with left-wing MEPs voting down Hoekstra if conservatives vote down Šefčovič.

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