EU climate chief nominee Wopke Hoekstra vows more ambition in European Parliament hearing

Wopke Hoekstra was questioned by the European Parliament's ENVI Committee
Wopke Hoekstra was questioned by the European Parliament's ENVI Committee Copyright Philippe BUISSIN/ European Union 2023 - Source : EP
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Former Dutch foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra struck back on Monday evening against accusations that he lacks the credentials needed to spearhead the EU's climate action policies.


During three hours of questioning by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), the Dutchman pledged to slash EU greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 2040 if appointed.

Hoekstra, who was nominated for the role of EU commissioner for climate action after Frans Timmermans stepped down in August to run in the upcoming Dutch elections, promised to conclude all of the EU's pending climate legislation before the 2024 European elections. He also vowed to introduce new measures to curb climate change, including a tax on aviation fuel.

“Thanks to your work, Europe is making tangible progress on the green transition. If you place your trust in me, I would like to continue that legacy," he said in his bid to convince MEPs to back his candidacy.

Two-thirds of the coordinators of the parliament’s environment committee must back Hoekstra's candidacy before a vote to seal his appointment can be held in a full plenary sitting on Thursday. If approved, he will become responsible for steering the EU towards its landmark goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and for representing the bloc in international climate negotiations.

Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič is set to inherit Timmermans’ broader responsibility for the EU Green Deal, also pending the European Parliament’s approval.

But Hoekstra's nomination has sparked fierce backlash from environmentalist groups as well as left-leaning MEPs, who claim he lacks any relevant experience in promoting climate policies.

He previously opposed the Dutch government's plans to end gas exploitation and reduce harmful nitrogen emissions, and as finance minister granted €3.4 billion in state aid to airline KLM without any environmental conditions. He has also previously worked for oil and gas firm Shell.

But on Monday, he resisted accusations that his track record makes him unsuitable to lead the EU's climate portfolio.

"Place your trust in me"

Hoekstra assured MEPs he would do everything in his power to ensure the EU meets its ambitious 55% emission reduction target by 2030, and climate neutrality by 2050. He also said he didn't want to be a caretaker, telling lawmakers he would in the meantime work on a "Green Deal 2.0".

He pledged to boost green bonds, mandate a phase-out of unabated fossil fuels, advance the EU energy taxation directive and drum up global support for a levy on aviation fuels.

Hoekstra also vowed that the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF), the EU's long-term budget, will be "fossil fuel subsidy-free". When pressed by fellow Dutchman Bas Eickhout of the Greens group, the vice-chair of the parliament's environment committee, on how he would ensure a qualified majority of member states back such a measure, he said he would do everything in his power to discourage EU countries from including fossil fuel subsidies in their National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs).

He also pitched an ambitious climate diplomacy programme that would aim to align other major world economies with EU ambition levels.

At COP28, the UN climate change conference that kicks off in Dubai in November, Hoekstra said he would seek a commitment to reach the global emissions peak by 2025, a tripling of installed renewable energy capacity and a doubling of energy efficiency increases by 2030. 

The hearing came as concerns mount over a possible ‘greenlash’ (or green backlash) in Europe, with governments watering down key climate initiatives such as new emission limits for cars due to fears of repercussions for European industry and competitiveness. 

Hoekstra claimed he was committed to the 2035 ban on the sale of new combustion engine cars on the EU market, but said it was crucial to also tackle "unfair competition" from China and ensure electric cars are affordable for EU citizens.

Addressing the concerns of farmers, foresters and industry

"Above all, we need to work closely with our farmers and foresters," Hoekstra told EU lawmakers. "They need to be helped to work sustainably, and they are entitled to a decent living. Therefore we need to offer our farmers a revised business model."

Monday’s intense hearing follows months of bitter infighting over environmental policy between the main EU political groups, with the recent Nature Restoration Law (NRL) highlighting a deep right-left divide

The European People’s Party (EPP), the right-leaning group to which Hoekstra belongs, ran a relentless, albeit unsuccessful opposition campaign to bring down the NRL to protect the interests of European farmers.


"I know there was quite a lot of tension and friction here. But we have to deal with that in a fruitful manner," Hoekstra said, surprising the chamber by assuring he would uphold the Nature Restoration Law as a means of safeguarding natural carbon sinks.

"A healthy natural environment will keep us cool on an increasingly warm planet," he said.

He also addressed concerns European industry could bear the brunt of a raft of new EU environmental legislation, saying the Commission should set up a "net zero desk" to offer continuous support to industry sectors.

Addressing the elephants in the room

When asked about his past experience working for Shell, Hoekstra claimed his two-year stint at the oil and gas firm after he finished university should not affect his "independence" as a policymaker.

He claimed he showed commitment to the green transition as the Dutch finance minister, introducing the first green bonds in the Netherlands and creating a Growth Fund to ensure more sustainable investments.


He was also grilled on his experiences with consulting firm McKinsey, for whom he worked until 2017, and on his decision to travel to Qatar during the 2022 men's football World Cup.

Hoekstra claimed his trip to Qatar as Dutch foreign minister was not to discuss financial deals but rather to discuss human rights concerns. 

"I am deeply liberal when it comes to individual freedoms, ranging from gay rights to freedom of speech," Hoekstra said in an attempt to dispel any doubts.

The chairmen and political coordinators of the parliament's environment will meet behind closed doors later on Monday to evaluate Hoekstra's suitability for the position.

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