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Exclusive: Environment Commissioner eyes key green role in European Parliament

Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius after an EU Council summit in March 2024 where haranged ministers for reneging on a Nature Restoration Law compromise
Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius after an EU Council summit in March 2024 where haranged ministers for reneging on a Nature Restoration Law compromise Copyright Alexandros Michailidis / European Union
Copyright Alexandros Michailidis / European Union
By Robert Hodgson
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In an exclusive interview, outgoing EU Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius – newly elected as an MEP for his home country Lithuania – told Euronews how he believes he can help the Greens punch above their weight in Brussels.

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EURONEWS: You’re joining the Greens at a time when they’ve just taken a bit of a battering, losing 18 of 71 seats. Do you see this as a worrying sign of falling public support for climate and environmental action, and the end of the Green Wave we saw in 2019, or is the doom mongering exaggerated or overblown?

VS: I think it's very much exaggerated. If you look at the quality of the group, especially, we have a lot of very strong politicians, [some of them] former ministers. And I'm pretty sure that the Greens can be a valuable part of the pro-European coalition. I hope that's going to happen.

A lot say that it’s difficult for the Greens, and that it might be dangerous for the Green Deal. But, honestly, in the previous mandate the Greens were not part of the coalition, and the Green Deal was voted in - not by the Greens, because they had only 73 votes. Of course, we would like to have broader support, but even though the group is going to be smaller, we will work as hard to prove to our voters our value in the parliament.

Can I ask why you chose to return to stand in the European elections rather than returning to domestic politics in Lithuania?

Well, first of all we are a new party, only two years old. And, you know, the European elections are very difficult because you don't get too much public engagement. In Lithuania there was the second lowest turnout. And my profile fits very well, and I think it actually proved to be the correct strategy. People recognise me [and] my knowledge of, of the European affairs. So that was that was the logic behind it: to have the strongest candidate, one who understands European affairs

Because we see that the upcoming five years are going to be extremely important for Europe, regarding competitiveness, possible enlargement, and might include even a reform of the European Union. All these things require people who understand how Europe works, and therefore the party saw me as a suitable candidate.

Well, Bas Eickhout, one of the Greens’ joint lead candidates in the elections, clearly shares that view. He said ahead of the group’s inaugural meeting this week, which you attended, that you were a “powerful” addition to its ranks. Do you have any plans for leveraging your high profile, any specific goals as an MEP, and you plan to make a bid for the chair of the environment committee, which would seem a logical fit?

Well, first we have to see if the Greens are part of the coalition. If the Greens are part of a coalition, nothing can be excluded. Of course, every position will have to be discussed and decided among the group members, seeing who would be the most suitable. But then, if we are not part of the coalition, it’s a bit of a different of story, so I wouldn't rush into any position yet. My goal, of course, is to ensure that, first of all, the Green Deal proves its value. We always said about the Green Deal that it's our competitiveness strategy, it's a strategy oriented into the future. So we need to implement the social parts of the Green Deal, we need to deliver on the competitiveness angle.

For me, Ukraine will remain a very important question. And I will be working also on Ukraine and Moldova and [the question of EU] enlargement. So there are plenty of goals that we need to achieve. And domestically, for me [turnout of] 28.4% was also disappointing. So I think it's extremely important to ensure that European politics are more understandable to people.

Just to clarify, you're still Environment Commissioner for the time being, correct?

I will be until 15th July, I'm still going to be operational.

Have you handed in your formal notice to the Commission?

No, not yet.

At the Environment Council in March, you mentioned that governments reneging on a so-called trilogue agreement raises serious questions about the consistency and stability of EU decision making. In the last five years there were stand-offs over the Corporate Sustainability Directive and CO2 emissions standards for cars. Are you concerned that, going into the next legislature, the trilogue process can no longer be relied on as a means to legislate?

I hope this was an exception and it's not going to be this way, because of course that would be very upsetting. I warned about this negative precedent which, of course, raises questions about the future of Europe overall. And for that to be avoided, we need a strong, pro-European coalition which would value the agreements that are achieved – agreements that maybe not everyone is satisfied with, but that allow us to move forward.

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The Greens said this week that they are prepared to compromise on their environmental ambitions if it means they can join a centrist coalition in the parliament with the EPP, S&D and Renew groups. Is there a risk that by giving ground, you could lose even more support?

No, I wouldn't say so. I think on the contrary, the Greens being part of the coalition would allow, first of all, to ensure the implementation of the Green Deal. As I said, I think these elections were extremely important because Europe finds itself at a crossroads, due to changing competition globally, the war in Ukraine et cetera. Having a strong pro-European coalition which would have enough votes is is crucially important.

Do you find it frustrating as a newly elected MEP, but during the campaign as well, that the Greens are seen as a single issue party?

It’s very difficult for me to judge [but] being on the inside, I don't see it this way. If you look at our current group, we have former members of government from Sweden, from Finland and Denmark, a strong German delegation. I was the minister of economy and innovation before, we have a minister of the interior... I think the Greens can prove that, first of all, green policies are socially responsible policies, which is the part that can make Green Deal a success story. Without the social policy, of course, the Green Deal will end up only frustrating people instead of delivering.

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One of the first real tests of the new legislatures appetite for will be a proposal for a 2040 emissions reduction target as a milestone on the way to net-zero, for which the outgoing Commission has recommended at least 90% in line with its independent scientific panel. Do you think there's a danger that it won't be supported in Parliament?

I don't think so, because without, 2040, you cannot get to 2050. And this interim goal is no more ambitious than the whole journey to 2050. If you don't have a 2040 goal, first of all you are not credible with the international agreements, and we know that for COPs [UN climate summits], we we want to have our partners on board. Next we have the EU-China Climate Dialogue, where I think our credibility is the key to unlock China's and other countries’ ambition. Anyway, climate law is adopted: you need to get to zero by 2050.

Two key events over the past five years, and on your watch as Environment Commissioner, have been the covid pandemic and then the war in Ukraine. The energy crisis has dramatically accelerated Europe’s energy transition, but do you think these black swan events had any other lasting impact on environment policy?

If we speak about covid, first of all we need to learn about crisis management. At the very beginning of the pandemic, masks were the issue - it showed that we were completely unprepared. We need first of all to ensure that we have a crisis management tools that can be activated and we can work as 27. At the end of the day, we managed to do so, and that was the great leadership of the president, von der Leyen. The second things must be our strategic autonomy: we cannot afford to be so dependent on countries outside the EU.

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The same goes for the war in Ukraine. Yes, it's accelerated the energy transition. But before that, overreliance on Putin, on gas, on fossil fuels; now we are seriously damaged. Our economy, our competitiveness, was built on cheap gas coming from Russia, for a very long time, and the transition was not taking place.

What do you think of the idea of appointing a European Commission vice-president for future generations as some activist groups have called for, and what advice would you have for the new environment commissioner, who's going to replace you at some point in the near future?

On the first one, I would leave it to the discrepancy of the commission president. If it is going to be Ursula von der Leyen continuing in the job, I'm pretty sure she will have ideas on how to best put 27 commissioners to work, and what are the key topics needed.

Talking about the advice for the future environment commissioner. Well, I think a lot has been done, it's been a great five years, and now the focus must be, first of all, on implementation. All that work is not not going to matter much if it's not implemented well - not only on environmental protection as such, but policies on circular economy, on pollution - which Europeans, they do love it and very much agree with. So therefore the Commission's important role is to keep national governments ambitious enough to implement those policies.

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I think at the end of the day, our goal is to ensure that what we have agreed among us, with the member states, is implemented without infringement procedures. That would be the ideal scenario. I know I'm a bit idealistic.

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