The European institutions rarely do party politics well, but this week was a rare exception as the current European Commission (EU executive) President Jose Barroso fought for the approval of the European Parliament (lower house one part of our bicameral legislature) for a second five year term in office. The verbal jousting between the Green leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Barroso was a delight; proof that the Punch and Judy politics regularly seen at Westminster can take place in a chamber hampered by simultaneous intepretation, stilted debates and differing national traditions.
In the end Barroso scraped together enough votes for approval by an absolute majority (not required but politically important). Portuguese and Spanish Socialists ignored their own group and joined the centre-right, liberal centre and looney right in voting for a renewal of his term of office.
There may be some scepticism as to whether Barroso will shake lose the shackles of the 27 Member State governments or whether his policies have contributed rather than dealt with the recent financial and economic crisis but he was in effect the only candidate and everyone knew it. The negotiations in recent weeks between Barroso and the political groups were as much about the structure and programme of the Commission as anything else.
While the programme (Political Guidelines for the next Commission) includes sweeties for all deserving children – promises for financial services regulation, a decarbonisation of transport and electricity etc – I’d like to concentrate on two new structural changes announced in Tuesday’s debate that interest me:
– A Commissioner for Climate Action
One of the 26 other Commissioners in Barroso’s yet to be formed team will get the climate change brief. Green members I met down in the Parliament this week remain concerned rather than overjoyed. While Barroso once again pointed out the EU’s leadership globally on climate change issues, they fear that a new Climate action Commissioner will get the climate change part of the department for environment (DG Environment) and put it together with the large energy department (DG Transport and Energy). For Greens, this is disaster time. Energy cares about market liberalisation, energy security and has an unhealthy like for nuclear they would say. The climate change activists at DG Environment will be drowned out by the energy obsessed hoardes, or so goes the theory. In reality, climate change is not going away and the debates that currently occur between the different departments are now likely simply to take place within the department. The issue of ambition is probably more about which politician gets the portfolio. Do they come from a big Member State and carry the political clout to push the agenda on Member States, who like to talk good game but then shy away from hard legislation (see the current debate on the energy performance of buildings as an example). We shall watch with interest as Member State’s lobby for their own nominees. It would not be a surprise if the UK went for the brief.
– Chief Scientific Adviser
Barroso also announced the creation of a Chief Scientific Officer who has “has the power to deliver proactive, scientific advice throughout all stages of policy development and delivery.” The EU institutions, mainly Parliament to be fair to the Commission, are hampered by a lack of access to scientific advice at appropriate stages in the policymaking process. The Commission’s scientific committees and agencies such as EFSA (food) and ECHA (chemicals) provide a good service upon request but suffer from work programmes and the need for both consensus and time. It shall be interesting to see what role such an adviser takes, how political or independent they will become, how proactive they can be and how they fit into the current structure of scientific advice. How would BSE, phthalates in toys, melamine in milk have played out should such a figure have existed at those times? Would some of our more reactive Members of the European Parliament have been slapped down or encouraged by this person’s presence? We await the details and of course the person.