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EU environment to Brexit bureaucrat?

Dave KeatingJuly 12, 2016

The UK wants its new temporary European Commissioner to be in charge of EU environment policy for the next two years. Campaigners say such an assignment would mean the EU considers environment to be unimportant.

Großbritannien Europaflagge vor dem Big Ben in London
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Halle'n

After the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Commission after the Brexit referendum result on June 24, the UK government then changed its mind. Now, it wants to be back in the commission - the European Union's executive branch. And according to EU sources, the UK wants its new commissioner to be put in charge of EU environment policy.

This has raised a howl of protest from members of the European Parliament's environment committee, which would hold confirmation hearings for the nominee. They say such a move could grind EU environmental legislation to a halt during the potentially long and difficult Brexit negotiations, expected to last at least two years.

And some distrust the UK's motivations for wanting to be put in charge of EU environment policy during this time.

Former European Finance Comissioner Jonathan Hill (Photo: Getty Images/AFP/D. Roland)
Jonathan Hill, the UK's previous commissioner, resigned the day after the Brexit resultImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Roland

"Given the UK government's obstructionism on a number of key environment policy files, it is hard to imagine positive reasons why it would want its incoming commissioner to take over the portfolio," Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green member of the committee, told DW.

The Tories in favor of Brexit, Eickhout said, would "want to peel back EU regulation - and clearly a lot of environment rules would be in their crosshairs."

"Putting the fox in charge of the henhouse would be a seriously retrograde step to take, and we would urge European Commission President Juncker not to countenance the UK's request," he added.

UK yo-yo

The European Commission, which proposes all EU legislation, is made up of 28 commissioners - one appointed from each EU country. Each commissioner is in charge of a specific policy area, much like a national cabinet of ministers.

The UK's previous commissioner, Jonathan Hill held a coveted position in charge of EU financial services. But Hill resigned after the Brexit vote. Given that it is on its way out of the EU, the UK was not expected to nominate a replacement.

But last week the British government changed its mind and nominated Julian King, the current UK ambassador to France, to replace Hill.

King will need to be approved by all other 27 EU governments, as well as by the European Parliament.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has indicated there is no possibility of the UK being given another powerful policy area like financial services.

According to EU sources, the UK government views the environment portfolio as being of low enough import for it to be given to King, who will only be a commissioner until the UK officially leaves the EU.

Man bicycling through air pollution in Milan (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa Eingestellt von Julia Mahncke)
Environmentists ask why a British bureaucrat should be in charge of pollution rules in a bloc the UK will leaveImage: picture-alliance/dpa

UK would replace Malta

The current environment commissioner is Karmenu Vella from Malta. At the time Juncker doled out the current portfolio allocations in 2014, environmental activists were already upset that this portfolio was given to a largely unknown politician from a small member state.

Vella has not been considered to be a very active commissioner in the two years since.

Environmentalists also reacted negatively to the fact that Vella was made commissioner for both environment and fishing policy. These two fields each had their own commissioners in the previous commission term under President Jose Manuel Barroso. Were King to be put in charge of environment, Vella would likely remain commissioner of fishing policy only.

"The reinstatement of a fulltime commissioner for the environment portfolio is a positive aspect of this proposal - something we would then hope to become a permanent state of affairs," Jeremy Wates, secretary general of campaign group EEB, told DW.

However, Wates said he has serious misgivings about the status of a UK-nominated commissioner, given the likelihood that the UK will leave the EU. "We would be concerned that his voice would carry less weight than that of other commissioners - with potentially negative consequences for the environment."

Environment caught up in Brexit politics

Commission President Jean- Claude Juncker (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Lecocq)
Juncker has been accused of not viewing EU environmental policy as importantImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Lecocq

Juncker held a first meeting with King yesterday (11.07.2016), after which he said he judged him to have the "competencies" to be a commissioner. A commission spokesperson told DW that Juncker will announce a decision on what portfolio to give King by the end of July.

Though the representative would not say whether the environment portfolio was discussed, he would not rule out the possibility that it could be assigned to King.

Other members of the European Parliament have suggested they will block a new UK commissioner, regardless of the portfolio assigned.