EU commissioner-designates Wopke Hoekstra and Maroš Šefčovič need to do more to convince the European Parliament's environment committee they have what it takes to spearhead the EU’s green transition.
Committee chair Pascal Canfin confirmed on Tuesday that both candidates must respond to further written questions by 07:00 on Wednesday morning, after they failed to secure the backing of at least two thirds of the committee's coordinators during their hearings.
Only if their answers satisfy at least four of the political groups represented in the parliament can a vote take place on their appointments in the plenary on Thursday.
Wopke Hoekstra, the former Dutch foreign minister, is bidding to become the new EU commissioner for climate action after Frans Timmermans stepped down from the role to run in the upcoming Dutch elections. Maroš Šefčovič has been nominated to inherit Timmermans' broader responsibility for the European Green Deal.
Šefčovič's domestic political ties are one of the sorest points in the approval process. His SMER party, led by pro-Russian populist Robert Fico, topped the polls in the Slovak election over the weekend.
The two appointments are intertwined, and are susceptible to political boycotting from the left and right. Hoekstra belongs to the right-leaning European People's Party (EPP) while Šefčovič belongs to the left-leaning Socialists and Democrats (S&D). The EPP confirmed in a statement on Tuesday they were unhappy with Šefčovič's "vague answers" in his hearing.
Both candidates will also need to clarify in their written answers how they intend to fulfill their pledges to slash the bloc's greenhouse gas emissions by 90% by 2040. "This will drive the whole Green Deal 2.0 sequence, so of course it’s very important," Canfin explained.
Despite already holding one of the eight vice presidencies of the European Commission, Šefčovič had "disappointed" a majority of the EU political groups by failing to clearly commit to wrapping up pending green legislation before the European elections in June 2024, including on animal welfare, forest management, chemicals and microplastics.
"I must say that without this clear timeline I don’t see a two-third majority coming for Maroš Šefčovič," Canfin said.
But fears that Robert Fico's influence could undermine Šefčovič's commitment to severing the EU's energy ties with Russia emerged as one of the key sticking points in negotiations.
Canfin told reporters that one of the questions Šefčovič must respond to by tomorrow include: Do you commit to defending the EU's position on the energy embargo against Russia in all of the Union's capitals, including the one you know best?
During Šefčovič's hearing earlier on Tuesday, German MEP Christian Ehler of the European People’s Party (EPP) asked the Slovak whether he could commit to supporting sanctions on Moscow and backing the phaseout of Russian gas in Europe, even if it meant risking not being nominated for more EU jobs by a Fico government.
“I can assure you that whatever the result of the forming of the government, I will always defend European interests,” Šefčovič responded.
Hoekstra's nomination for the climate role had sparked controversy among environmental groups, who claimed he lacked the credentials to lead the EU's climate action policies. He voted down key environmental laws in the Dutch parliament and previously worked for oil and gas giant shell.
But he surprised MEPs on Monday when he vowed more climate ambition and new measures to curb climate change, including a tax on aviation fuel.
The Dutchman has now been given extra time to provide further declarations on his past work for global consulting firm McKinsey.
If successful, Hoekstra would represent the bloc in key international climate negotiations, including the UN COP28 conference in Dubai.
Canfin acknowledged on Tuesday that there is a real risk there will be no climate commissioner representing the EU at COP28 if Hoekstra's candidacy is delayed.