The European Parliament's environment committee has approved the bids of Wopke Hoekstra and Maroš Šefčovič to spearhead the Green Deal agenda, with a final vote on their appointments expected on Thursday.
The duo's approval was delayed after they failed to secure the backing of two-thirds of the committee's coordinators during intensive questioning earlier this week. The political deadlock was broken after both candidates responded to further written questions overnight, including their commitments to CO2 reduction targets.
The Commissioner-designates can take up their new roles only if they secure the backing of a majority of the parliament's 705 members in a plenary vote on Thursday afternoon.
Hoekstra, the former Dutch foreign minister, belongs to the right-leaning European People's Party (EPP), while Šefčovič is part of the left-leaning Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. The political tussle over their appointments comes in the wake of bitter infighting over environmental policy between both groups.
The two candidates would split responsibilities inherited from Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans, who resigned as European Commissioner in August to run in the upcoming general elections in the Netherlands. Šefčovič would have the highest-ranking position in the European Green Deal, while Hoekstra would deal with the development of specific climate policies, including de-carbonisation and financing.
But a political veto on either candidate is still possible, with the Dutch socialists confirming on Wednesday they would vote against Hoekstra's appointment.
Pieter Liese, a German MEP for the EPP group, told reporters that his group would not block the approval of Šefčovič. "I value him, he's more pragmatic than Timmermans was. Timmermans was provocative and not inclusive," Liese explained, in an apparent reference to the fight over the contentious Nature Restoration Law.
Responding to the decision on Wednesday, the Greens group in the European Parliament suggested they would not oppose either candidate, arguing the written commitments submitted by Hoekstra were a "victory" for the ecological transition.
The environment committee's hesitation had sparked fears their appointments could be rejected at the first hurdle, leaving a gaping hole in the bloc's climate leadership.
Both Commissioner-designates provided further assurances they would "defend" an EU-wide goal to slash greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% by 2040 overnight, a target that has not yet been officially proposed by Brussels.
Šefčovič's domestic political ties were one of the sorest sticking points in the approval process. His SMER party topped the polls in the Slovak elections over the weekend, led by pro-Russian populist Robert Fico, who previously backed Šefčovič's appointment as Commissioner while serving as prime minister.
Lawmakers sought assurances from Šefčovič that Fico's influence would not undermine his commitment to severing the EU's energy ties with Russia. Slovakia currently has an exemption from a far-reaching ban on seaborne Russian oil.
"He said clearly that in all 27 capitals, he will say the same thing (on energy independence from Russia), including when in Bratislava," Pascal Canfin, the chair of the parliament's environmental committee, explained after revealing the outcome of the committee's meeting.
According to Canfin, Šefčovič also assuaged MEPs' frustrations by providing a clearer timeline for the conclusion of pending green legislation, including on forest management, microplastics and animal welfare.
Hoekstra responded "positively" to the environment committee's request for a full disclosure of his previous consulting activities for global firm McKinsey.
His nomination for the climate role had sparked controversy, with environmental groups and left-leaning MEPs claiming he lacks 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.
If approved on Thursday, Hoekstra will represent the EU in key international climate negotiations, including the upcoming COP28 United Nations conference in Dubai.