EU policy: Juncker puts a Spaniard in the works

How will European energy policy be affected by Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy designate. We analyse the background of Junker's proposed candidate from Spain. Photo credit: European Commission
How will European energy policy be affected by Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy designate. We analyse the background of Junker's proposed candidate from Spain. Photo credit: European Commission
How will European energy policy be affected by Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy designate. We analyse the background of Junker's proposed candidate from Spain. Photo credit: European Commission

How will European energy policy be affected by Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy designate? Photo: European Commission

In July we cautiously predicted Jean-Claude Juncker’s election as European Commission (EC) president might be good news for energy storage. Now we are not so sure. His choice of energy commissioner appears dubious, to say the very least.

A brief survey of the credentials for Miguel Arias Cañete, Juncker’s proposed EC Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, reveals the veteran Spanish politician is possibly the last person you would want running a low-carbon, green energy agenda.

Cañete, who until recently was Spain’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Environment, has been roundly slammed by environmental groups for having deep links to the fossil fuel industry.

A keen vintage car collector, he formerly ran two petroleum storage businesses and until recently retained 2.5% shares in both of them. This week it was confirmed that he has hurriedly sold the shares off.

But it will be less easy to shake off the fact that during his tenure in the Spanish administration he opened the door to hydraulic fracturing by including it as one of the processes that would be admitted for environmental permitting under a new law.

Oil exploration sparking protests

His department later rubber-stamped the environmental permit authorising oil exploration activities off the Canary Islands, sparking protests from islanders and environmental groups alike.

And beyond Cañete’s own clear interests in maintaining the fossil-fuel status quo lies a wider commitment to the anti-renewable agenda marked out by his colleagues in Spain’s People’s Party (Partido Popular or PP in Spanish).

Since coming to power in 2011, the PP has been responsible for one of the most severe persecutions of renewable energy interests anywhere in the world, effectively dynamiting the country’s formerly leading solar and wind industries.

The cutbacks introduced, allegedly to reduce a tariff deficit spiralling out of control, have included retroactive measures that were criticised by Cañete’s EC predecessor, Günther Oettinger, and have been challenged in international arbitration courts.

Against this backdrop it is unsurprising that Cañete’s nomination for the energy and climate change portfolio, ostensibly with a brief to de-carbonise Europe’s energy system, has been greeted with incredulity in some sectors.

Asking a fox to look after the chickens

The Spanish green party Equo, for example, called it “an insult to intelligence.” The party’s European parliament spokesperson, Florent Marcellesi, added: “It’s like asking a fox to look after the chickens.”

And Carlos Martínez Gorriarán of Spain’s Union, Progress and Democracy party said Cañete “exports the failed energy policy model of successive Spanish governments.”

So what is the head of the EC playing at? It would be naïve to assume that an experienced politician such as Juncker was unaware of Cañete’s political baggage.

And the likelihood of the Spaniard having a road-to-Damascus-style change of heart over renewable energy seems remote.

However, some observers have noted that Juncker seems to have intentionally put a number of his proposed commissioners on the spot, selecting nominees for jobs they might have to work hard to deal with.

Europe’s real energy issues

Another very real possibility is that despite the rhetoric about sustainability and decarbonisation, Juncker has judged the real energy issues of his tenure will be to do with gas, oil and coal. That is fair enough.

Even the most ardent renewable energy supporter could barely claim Europe is ready to be weaned off hydrocarbon fuels just yet. And events in Ukraine have of late focused attention on just how important those fuel supplies are.

Under that scenario, having an unreconstructed oil and gas fan in charge of Europe’s energy affairs might be seen as no bad thing.

And Cañete’s involvement in a number of scandals in Spain has at least left him with a reputation for being a trench-weary political operator, which may be considered as advantageous in the rough and tumble of European energy legislation.

Regarding the green agenda, it could be that Juncker is counting on Alenka Bratušek, proposed for the newly created post of vice president for Energy Union, to halt Cañete’s worst petro-fuelled excesses.

Bratušek is essentially being installed as Cañete’s boss, which should be an interesting dynamic in itself given the Spaniard’s recent sexist remarks.

One step removed from the top tier

In fact, Bratušek’s mere existence is something of an embarrassment for Cañete since it leaves him one step removed from the top tier of European decision making, a slight that has been widely remarked upon by Spanish observers.

At the same time, while some euro politicians have protested over the merger of climate change and energy roles into a single portfolio, other commentators have noted that Bratušek and Cañete have almost identical job descriptions.

This could mean Juncker has in fact handed Spain’s only European commissioner a largely symbolic role, or at least one where there is actually little room for manoeuvre given the need for vice-presidential signoff.

First Cañete has to make it into the job, though. Right now euro left-wingers are lining up to give the Spaniard a run for his money in European Parliament approval hearings, with several parties saying they will vote against the nomination.

It is unclear what will happen if Cañete’s nomination does not get approved.

What is practically certain, however, is that if the Morgan-loving Member of the European Parliament takes over Europe’s energy policy then he won’t be thinking about how to make it easier to run electric vehicles on renewable energy.

Written by Jason Deign

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