INTERVIEW – Vălean: ‘EU should take the lead in the fight against climate change’

Half a year into the job of presiding over one of the most influential committees of the European Parliament, the one that legislates environmental (and energy) policy, MEP Adina Vălean feels that the EU can do more to lead the world into becoming truly environmentally-friendly. However, in this exclusive interview to VoteWatch, Vălean also explains how a two-speed Europe could weaken EU’s environmental ambitions and leverage on the global stage. 

Environmental issues are often at the top of the EU’s crowded agenda. In the European Parliament, the ENVI Committee is currently dealing with several pressing topics, as most products and economic activities regulated by the EU are related to the protection of the environment, health and food safety. However, tackling climate change is arguably the most daunting task. After signing the Paris agreement on Climate, the EU has to deliver on the promise to further cut its production of greenhouse gases. The task at hand has become even more difficult since the decision by Donald Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement.

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We asked the (relatively) new chair of the EP’s specialised committee what sort of environmental agenda can the public expect from the EU, given the accelerating political developments in Europe and elsewhere. A mathematician, Adina Vălean has joined politics in 1999, and has been elected Member of the European Parliament ever since her home country, Romania, joined the EU in 2007. She has risen to become a senior MEP, having been elected Vice-President of the Parliament in 2014 and, since EP’s reshuffle in January this year, Chair of ENVI.  She is positioned on 36th place (out of 751 MEPs) in our recent measurement of influence among MEPs.

Ms. Vălean, you have now chaired for almost half a year one of the most powerful committees of the European Parliament. The (ENVI) committee is the place where decisions are made regarding most of the legislation that regulates environmental and health regulation, but also many aspects of the EU’s energy policy that impact directly on the lives of half a billion citizens. There are so many diverging views in these areas, and many societal and political actors are interested in influencing the shape of the legislation that comes out of the committee you are heading.

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1) How did you find this experience so far, is this position more challenging compared to your previous post as vice-chair of the EP?

AV: I am very enthusiastic of my new position as ENVI Chair. It is highly political and strategic, as I am in charge of deciding on the dossiers that will be placed on the agenda of the committee, in decisions on whether my committee will take the lead or be associated to a Commission proposal, negotiating with other Committee Chairs, in proposing activities and issues of interest. I am in constant contact with Commissioners, Director-Generals, and Council Ambassadors, discussing the urging and political priorities. I am also leading the ENVI delegations in inter-institutional negotiations where I represent the European Parliament and need to ensure that the mandate given by the plenary and by our Committee is best defended during the co-decision process. This is a lot of work and a great responsibility towards citizens, but highly rewarding.

It is pointless to compare this with my previous Vice-President position where, while I was also representing the EP, I was more involved in the strategic running of the institution’s administration. It also involved many political responsibilities and work, however, it can be somehow a less visible position from the citizens’ point of view.

2) With the US out of the Paris Accord, the EU is being pushed to take the lead on climate change policy. Is there enough political support across the continent and the political spectrum to sustain this?

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AV: Let me re-phrase this, the EU has always been a front-runner in the global fight against climate change because we believe in what science and the facts are telling us and the EU has only been pushed by that to take its policy decisions both internally and externally on the international stage. With the regrettable decision of President Trump to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement we should only push ourselves, and our global partners, even further ahead in our efforts. And I believe the political will is there – I don’t have to remind you of the statements of the leading EU Heads of State, of Presidents Juncker, Tusk and Tajani as well as of the leaders of the political groups in the EP following the G7 meetings in May and later on following the official decision of President Trump. The plenary debate on 14 June in the presence of the Marshall Islands President and the European Council Conclusions of 22 June show again a clear determination to implement the Paris Agreement in all its aspects.

But even if you look across the Atlantic not all is lost on the climate front. It is worth noting that in the US eleven Federal States, plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico, have joined the United States Climate Alliance and have vowed to pursue policies that will uphold the US’ commitments to the agreement. In addition, thirty cities, three states, more than 80 university presidents, and more than 100 companies are part of a growing group intending to uphold the Paris Agreement.

But of course what matters most is that we now put action into all the words and statements made. On the Parliament side, we have plenty to do in some key legislative files we are working on – the outcome of that work will be the concrete proof to our commitment. In addition, we will continue to be active, as parliamentarians, in the international context: the Parliament has been following the international climate negotiations very closely in the past years and this year again I will lead a delegation of 12 MEPs to the UNFCCC’s COP23 to support through our privileged contacts with parliamentarians throughout the world the full implementation of the Paris agreement.

3) Among the key proposals dealt with by the ENVI committee, there are two that stand out: the Circular Economy Package and the ETS. VoteWatch has recorded strong ideological and geographical divisions among delegations on issues such as targets for renewable energy or municipal waste. In fact, according to our analysis, ENVI is one of the areas where the two leading groups, EPP and S&D, vote against each other most frequently (40% of times), which makes the formation of a majority very difficult. For example, the vote on raising the target for municipal waste recycling has been adopted in the plenary by a tiny majority (351 in favour; 329 against).

The political families seem to have very different approaches to some of these matter, which probably doesn’t make your job easy. Plurality of opinions is a key feature of a democratic process, but is there a way to reconcile these views, in order to strengthen EP’s position of negotiation with the Council?

AV: As regards the review of the waste legislation, indeed the majority in favour of the increased target for municipal waste was very close. However, I would like to underline that Parliament’s mandate for negotiations – around 225 amendments covering a wide spectrum of issues – was adopted with a huge majority: 576 votes to 95, with 27 abstentions. It shows that even if there are differences between the EP political groups on individual issues, we are able to bridge differences and build support for major policy reviews. You also have to know that at the stage of the committee, MEPs had to go through 2000 amendments tabled and thus, obtaining this large majority in the final vote is a success of the rapporteur and shadow rapporteurs and of Parliament as a whole.

On ETS, a file for which the compromise-building exercise in committee was also delicate, I would underline that the EP has one common goal: reaching the best agreement possible with the Council in order to improve the system and ensure that the 4th phase of the EU ETS is a success. That being said now as we approach the main so called triangle of issues in the next trilogue in Strasbourg we must ensure that our mandate given by plenary is cleverly defended along the long negotiation hours ahead of us.

4) These environmental dossiers are very sensitive, as both stakeholders and citizens increasingly want to be heard by EU politicians. Do stakeholders and citizens contribute enough to the decision-making process today? What can be improved in this process so that we create a stronger connection between citizens and EU’s elected officials?

AV: I believe that at least in the European Parliament, citizens do find a sympathetic ear – we are a very open institution that offers numerous opportunities for all stakeholders to make their point. All our debates are public and the majority of associated documents and hence the evolution of the political discourse can be very easily followed. Individually as Members and collectively via our respective parliamentary committees we provide numerous channels for contact and exchanges.

Precisely because of the public interest and of the impact of the legislation under our competence on citizens’ life, the Environment Committee has been leading the way in terms of its transparency policy on decision making, events and publication of documents since many years.  We are well aware of the sensitivity of many files and we try to prepare ourselves and to be open as much as possible. We give a platform to all stakeholders to express their positions and be heard. Just a recent and very relevant example with the waste dossier: stakeholders, both industry and NGOs, had a plentiful of opportunities to voice their concerns and to be heard by MEPs. This was reflected in the huge number of amendments – around 2000 – tabled to this dossier. The Environment Committee also organised a Public Hearing on the subject and two workshops on specific issues where academia and stakeholders could engage in dialogue and exchange views together with MEPs.

A similar dialogue was put into place on ETS where the rapporteur and the shadow rapporteurs organised many meetings opened to experts, both from industry and NGOs, even before the draft report was tabled. This is also the case on the Governance of the Energy Union file. Of course, interests of stakeholders can be contradictory, but this is the very essence of our work: to listen to the arguments and build workable compromise solutions which meet the envisaged policy goals.

5) You are a senior MEP, with more than 10 years of experience during which you’ve experienced many political shake-ups across the continent and their impact on the EU’s policies. Do you think that Brexit will impact on the EU decision-making (in the environmental area), i.e. will the departure of the British MEPs and government change the tone of the debates and the direction of some of the policies?

AV: Like many committed to the vision of a strong and well-integrated Europe, I was saddened by the result of the referendum in the UK last June. The referendum result was perceived by many as a significant blow for the EU, but as any challenge it also provides a good opportunity for the EU to make some significant changes and notably in how it is perceived by the public.

Although as mentioned previously, Parliament is a very transparent Institution, I believe that the EU needs to do more to explain the enormous benefits EU policies have brought to citizens, such as safer food, cleaner air and water, more environmentally friendly products, and thriving wildlife to name a few. It is for this reason that the Environment Committee organised a public hearing in April to bring together stakeholders from different organisations to discuss the EU-added value in relation to the environment, public health and food safety. It was particularly enlightening to hear the representative of Business Europe explain the benefits of EU legislation for EU businesses!

By losing a large Member State, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will undoubtedly change the balance of discussions in the EU. In Parliament, the loss of a significant number of MEPs (73 out of 751 MEPs) sitting mainly within centre-right and Eurosceptic groups could also alter Parliament’s political landscape and ideological composition.

On the impact of the UK’s withdrawal on environmental policy, it is possible that following Brexit there might be less support for nuclear and unconventional energy sources, such as shale gas. In addition, in the area of climate change, the UK is generally considered to be a very influential player and after the referendum results were known many predicted a decline in ambition in climate policy in Europe in the absence of the UK’s influence. However, a lot has happened on the global stage since then, and although our British colleagues will certainly be greatly missed in the Parliament, I believe that the EU has shown that it is united and Parliament continues to be highly committed to improving citizens’ health and wellbeing, as it is clear that EU policies can save and improve the lives of millions, within Europe and beyond.

6) The rise of nationalism has been an increasing issue for the EU construction in recent years. Are these developments in some of the member states reflected in any way in the debates in your committee, i.e. have you noticed trends suggesting that MEPs are getting more divided along national lines rather than along political groups?

Given the global nature of the issues we are tackling in the environment committee, such as climate change, biodiversity protection and the circular economy, the solutions are also not national or European, but global in nature. Thus, I am pleased with the cross-party support in our Committee for the EU’s continued leadership on environmental issues. Moreover, this is also one of the areas where the European Union’s added-value to Member States’ individual efforts stands as proof for our work. In this new era of sustainable development, transitions are always difficult, but the sooner we can adapt to the new rules and create new business models, new jobs and growth in the economy, the better it will be for our environment and our citizens.

7) The debates on the future of Europe are heating up. While there are many voices asking for reforms, the directions in which various political leaders would like these reforms to go don’t necessarily converge. What kind of Europe do you envisage in 2020?

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I think any scenario leading to a multi-speed Europe is neither realistic nor desirable. Those defending these theories miss the point of Europe’s founding fathers: building a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe. This won’t happen if we leave some countries behind or if we give up on solidarity. These are the ingredients to build inequalities and resentment which are the seeds of future wars, exactly what European founders sought to avoid. I believe in an inclusive, more integrated and harmonised Europe where debates and consensus are at the core of our national and our European democracies. While this takes time and effort, this is the price to pay for peace. Besides, the new Commission has put in place a positive agenda of action for more efficiency and delivery of concrete results, and I am convinced that we must build upon that and shy away from the populist rhetoric promising simplistic and unrealistic solutions in the very complex world we are living in.

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