Šefčovič replaces Timmermans as EU Green Deal chief

Šefčovič replaces Timmermans as EU Green Deal chief

Politico — 2023-08-22

News from Brussels

Maroš Šefčovič — the European Commission’s Mr Fix It — on 22 August took control of the EU’s climate policy after Frans Timmermans quit to make a run for Dutch prime minister.

Šefčovič was handed the powerful role of executive vice president by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“Having successfully dealt with the most challenging files in the past, Maroš Šefčovič is one of the most senior and experienced members of my college,” said von der Leyen. “He will be in charge of bringing the European Green Deal forward with the same priority.”

The Commission president paid tribute to Timmermans’ “passionate and tireless work to make the European Green Deal a reality.”

A member of the center-left Social Democrats, Šefčovič takes the post at a perilous moment for EU climate policy. EU efforts to reduce greenhouse gases are being met with growing resistance as concerns mount over the costs to business and mandatory interventions into everyday life.

It is not the first time Šefčovič has been asked to step into a politically contentious role. In the weeks after the U.K. formally left the EU, von der Leyen tasked him with managing testy cross-Channel relations with London. 

In 2012 he was also parachuted in to temporarily assume the health portfolio after Maltese Commissioner John Dalli resigned over a tobacco-lobbying scandal.

In his new job, Šefčovič’s priority will be to shift from pushing through new climate legislation to “the successful roll-out of the European Green Deal as Europe's growth strategy,” von der Leyen said. 

Šefčovič said he was "humbled" to be chosen, and that he would continue work on the Green Deal.

It’s familiar territory for the Slovak, who previously led the Commission’s energy department and is in charge of an alliance of EU countries cooperating on the manufacture of batteries.

More recently he has been centrally involved in the EU’s joint gas purchase initiative, launched in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

In 2019, Šefčovič was able to broker a deal between Russia and Ukraine — already at war — to ensure continued gas supply to Europe.

In a recent interview with POLITICO, Šefčovič laid out a vision for Ukraine to be a major supplier of the critical minerals and products needed for a green overhaul of the EU economy as well as a strategic store of natural gas.

“The potential there is enormous,” he said. 

Dutch departure

Timmermans’ resignation, coming some 10 months before the end of the Commission's term, leaves a vacuum in Brussels — with his Green Deal project still only partially rolled out and facing headwinds.

Political resistance is coming from von der Leyen’s own center-right European People's Party and a far right that has seized on polls showing exhaustion with additional climate legislation. 

Timmermans was the Commission’s most vociferous voice on the need to take the political risk to continue pressing forward with the Green Deal. Now that role falls to Šefčovič.

Von der Leyen said the Slovak commissioner would need to engage in “an even more intensive dialogue with industry, key stakeholders like forest owners, farmers, as well as citizens.”

Šefčovič takes over three powerful positions held by the Dutchman; the role of executive vice president, commissioner in charge of the Green Deal and, on a temporary basis, commissioner in charge of the EU’s climate department. In a press release, the Commission said the latter role would be reassigned after the Netherlands proposes a new commissioner.

Von der Leyen has written to outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asking him to put forward a new candidate.

Deputy Prime Minister Sigrid Kaag, Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren, Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra, Timmermans' head of Cabinet Diederik Samsom and Dutch MEP Esther de Lange have all been suggested as potential candidates. However, any replacement Dutch commissioner won't necessarily get the same portfolio as Timmermans.

A Commission official told POLITICO earlier on 22 August that Timmermans would quit after a left-wing alliance formally chose him as its lead candidate for the upcoming Dutch parliamentary election.

Members of the Labor and Green parties — which will contest the November 22 general election on a joint ticket — backed Timmermans by a 91.8 percent margin. 

The climate commissioner was the sole nominee to become the coalition's candidate for prime minister.

Timmermans left Dutch politics in 2014 to join Jean-Claude Juncker's Commission before von der Leyen picked him in 2019 to be executive vice president in charge of the Green Deal. 

The Labor-Green list is currently neck and neck with the liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, according to POLITICO's Poll of Polls.

Timmermans insisted that the climate policies that marked his time at the Commission wouldn't be dropped now that he's back to being a Dutch politician.

He told party members 22 August evening that climate justice will be one of the united left's key priorities.

“I beg of you: Don’t let anyone tell you that there is a contradiction between climate justice and social justice," he said, adding he wants the Netherlands to boost public transport and green social housing.