New commission, new commissioners: A fresh start for EU’s Energy?

In a surprise move, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker drastically changed the configuration of his Commission on the 10th of September. Amongst the biggest modifications, two Commissioners will deal with Energy rather than one. Slovenia’s ex-Prime Minister Alenka Bratušek was assigned the post of Vice president for Energy Union; Spanish ex-Minister for Agriculture Miguel Arias Cañete was given the position of Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy.

A new setup

Changes to the configuration of Commissioners were expected, but these exceeded most predictions. The new commission will have 7 Vice Presidents (VPs) who will “steer and coordinate work across the Commission in key areas” by heading groups of Commissioners. In practise, VPs will act as filters, where they may choose to block initiatives coming from one of the Commissioners in their group. The idea behind this is that the Commission will act in a more coherent way, avoiding contradictory proposals. When taking decisions in the College, the VPs will still have 1 vote each, the same as Commissioners. This new hierarchy should, at least in theory, result in less but better proposals coming from the commissions, something that would be welcomed by industrial sectors who call for a more stable regulatory environment.

Division of tasks

Energy policy is undoubtedly one of Juncker’s priorities and he has set ambitious objectives for the two people in charge. Energy Union VP Alenka Bratušek has to complete the internal energy market (EU’s unfinished business), see that the EU meets its 2020 and 2030 energy targets, strengthen energy security “and counteract any possible energy shortages”, as well as to make sure that the union becomes the “world number one in renewable energies”. While this may seem a tall order, the VP for Energy Union will have unprecedented power (at least compared with previous Energy Commissioners) to coordinate the work of several Commissioners in her group by using her blocking powers in the following fields: 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.

The technical work will be in the hands of the Energy, and now also Climate Action, Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete. Amongst his priorities, he will focus on infrastructure projects, strengthening the Emission Trading System, diversifying energy imports and stimulating private investment in the sector. Bringing Energy and Climate Action together under one Commissioner is part of Juncker’s plan to streamline the Commission and it was met with resistance from many environmental NGOs who fear that the environmental agenda will be marginalised. Nevertheless, this could be seen as an opportunity to strengthen the position of renewables in the years to come as Climate Action will have to be more directly integrated into the EU’s complex Energy policy. This will only happen, of course, as long as Mr Cañete follows his Mission Letter instructions. In any case, the two Directorate Generals (DGs) under his command will not be merged, what makes this setup easily reversible and also removes the danger that one DG could take the other one over. In addition, Mr Cañete will also answer to the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness. In practice, this means that he has an alternative route to pass his proposals to the College of Commissioners, increasing his margin of manoeuvre and also increasing the importance of the topics of job and investment in future energy proposals.

The candidates

Both are seasoned politicians with experience in high positions but their allegiances still remain unclear. Cañete will probably face the toughest Parliamentary hearing out of the whole team proposed by Juncker and his survival in this Commission is far from being guaranteed. The Spanish ex-Minister may be found to have a serious conflict of interest as he recently was the chairman of an oil company and he holds shares in two others. In addition, he was repeatedly involved in several sexist gaffes. At the same time, judging from his time working as an agriculture minister in Spain, many think that he is a competent politician who gets the job done. Energy is not his field (he campaigned hard to be the agriculture Commissioner) but he might still provide results, that is, if he survives the hearings at the end of September.

The VP for Energy Union Alenka Bratušek had an impressive career, becoming the first female prime minister of Slovenia in 2013. She is also considered to be a competent politician (the Slovene economy grew during her mandate) and open to green policies. At the same time, she was severely criticised at home for nominating herself as a candidate for the Commission as well as for the radical privatisation drive that she led during her time in office. In addition, her country has relatively strong ties with Russia and is supportive of the Southstream backed by Gazprom, what puts in question her loyalties. Nonetheless, she is considered to be a good candidate for the job in Brussels and she is expected to survive the hearings by the Parliament.

It is hard to predict how these two unlikely figures will do in the coming years under an untested institutional setup and amid a financial and political crisis but there are at least two reasons to be optimistic: energy is for the first time at the forefront of the EC’s agenda (particularly renewables); even if not ideal, both candidates are high-profile and decisive politicians. These are good news because there is a lot of work to do!