Five things we learned about the new Environment Committee

Brussels doesn’t do political theatre like Westminster or Congress, so it’s unsurprising that there’s a slight fixation at present on the EP’s grilling of Commissioner-designates. One journalist may have described it as the equivalent of being mauled by a bunch of poodles, but those damn animals have drawn blood in the past and they are looking likely to do so again.

However, there’s been some real work going on at the same time in some of the Committees. So if you can get past the blood on the carpet in the Spinelli building, it’s worth lingering on the vote on 24 September in ENVI on the carbon leakage list under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). For those of you who missed it, the Eickhout motion that sought to challenge the Commission’s continuation with the current carbon leakage list failed by 34 votes against to 30 votes for, with 3 abstentions.

Unfortunately, the European Parliament still refuses to publish how MEPs vote in Committee, even when the vote is done electronically. From our understanding of how different people voted, here’s five takeaways from the result:

1. Don’t assume if you’re a member of the EFDD you’re not in favor of stronger environmental rules

European political groups are broad tents to say the least. UKIP and the Five Star Movement may well be group bedfellows but they are likely to vote differently in the ENVI Committee.  The Five Star Movement is more attuned to environmental issues and so it is no surprise that they sided with the Greens.  Going forward, if the Greens, Radical Left, and S&D stay together they could still deliver a pro-environment majority with the EFDD.

2. The views of the Socialist group may be evolving

If anyone won the European Parliamentary elections it was the Italian socialists under Matteo Renzi. Now the largest delegation in the S&D, their three representatives in ENVI are said to have abstained from voting in order not to go against the S&D line. Only time will tell whether they can use their new-found muscle to get the S&D to change its historic leanings on ENVI, rather than having to opt out.

3. The EPP can find a common position and stick to it

For years the EPP has struggled to prevent members of its group in ENVI going native on Committee. The EPP created a working group structure to try and get a group line in advance of important committee votes. However in the 7th legislature , EPP members still took different lines in the ENVI and ITRE on subjects like ETS back-loading and shale gas. This time it would appear the group came together, found a line and stuck to it on an issue where divisions may have appeared in the past. The EPP group’s energy policy paper, notably inspired by ITRE members, is no doubt intended to provide more cohesion among the different committees in the future.

4. Don’t expect a divided ‘industry’ to be so ‘influential’ on other ETS related files

There were suggestions that industry had been influential on the file in Committee, which sounded suspiciously like sour grapes on the losing side of an argument and an indictment of the intellectual powers of our elected members. It is however true that industry may have been united on this one. After all the only people advocating on the industry side were probably those on the list. Don’t expect such a united front when it comes to real ETS reform. There shall be industries on both sides of any debate; some who want higher carbon prices and some who want lower ones.

5. Time for all sides of this debate to start talking about solutions

The result should be a wake-up call to all sides on the ETS debate. The current political environment, with a focus on jobs, growth and competitiveness, is unlikely to be conducive to the kind of ETS reform that those who favor high carbon prices desire. At the same time, the protection afforded to energy intensives is still likely to whittle away over time. The direction on things like the carbon leakage list is clear, Member States don’t have money and a European compensation scheme doesn’t look like it’s on the horizon any time soon. The result could be all sides of this debate losing. Less and less protection for energy intensives combined with no real reform of the EU’s main instrument to tackle emissions.

It’s time for key players  on both sides to come together and start talking about policies that deliver for the most affected energy intensives, while also getting us on that pathway to a low carbon economy. Otherwise this ETS reform is going nowhere fast and that’s good for no-one.

Aaron McLoughlin and James Stevens