Putting the youngest ever Commissioner-designate in charge of managing the most fearful threats for future generations of Europeans, such as environment protection and oceans’ conservation, is the biggest gamble Ursula von der Leyen took in composing her team.
Lithuania’s economy and innovation minister Virginijus Sinkevičius was proposed by Commission President-elect von der Leyen as Commissioner for environment and oceans on Tuesday (10 September).
Although a slight but significant change in the job title, with the environmentally friendly word ‘oceans’ replacing the old-fashioned ‘fisheries’, he could substantially inherit the very same attributions of outgoing Maltese Commissioner Karmenu Vella, who wished him “an excellent green/blue mandate” in a tweet.
If the European Parliament gives the go-ahead, Sinkevičius will also make use of the same services, the Directorate-General Environment (DG ENV) and the Directorate-General Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE)
“He is 28-years old and he shows that Europe is ready to hand responsibility over to the younger generation,” said von der Leyen.
Berlaymont’s previous enfant prodige, Mariya Gabriel, was 10 years older than Sinkevičius when she passed from the European Parliament to the Commission to replace Kristalina Georgieva as the Bulgarian Commissioner in 2017.
In politics since 2016, Sinkevičius became a member of his national Parliament and chaired its economic committee. He is affiliated with the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, a party sitting along with the Greens/European Free Alliance group at the European Parliament without being a formal member of the political family.
But Von der Leyen also made clear who the real boss in determining the EU climate and environmental political strategy will be, writing in Sinkevičius’ mission letter that he is supposed to work under the guidance of the Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans.
The mission letter also says that his task will be to ensure that Europe’s environment, blue economy and fisheries sector form an integral part of the European Green Deal, which will be Timmermans’ main job.
More than Timmermans’ intern
Other priorities of his mandate, like the Commission’s work on zero-pollution ambition, will be also coordinated by his supervisor Timmermans.
But the youngster is not expected to be only a well-paid Timmermans trainee, as he is committed to special duties related to biodiversity, the plastic strategy and fisheries.
In particular, Sinkevičius could be responsible for setting up the new Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, with the topic of nature conservation that has recently raised many concerns, particularly in the field of agriculture.
The much-awaited Circular Economy Action Plan is high on the environmental political agenda, but it will be part of Europe’s broader new industrial strategy, meaning the Lithuanian Commissioner-designate will share competences with France’s Sylvie Goulard to develop the objectives of a climate-neutral economy by 2050.
In addition to moving forward on ensuring that the existing legislation on plastic is implemented, von der Leyen explicitly asked Sinkevičius to address the issue of microplastics, which the latest studies have detected literally everywhere, from water to food and even in the air.
From the tasks listed in the mission letter, Sinkevičius appears to be more self-sufficient on fisheries, although his mandate can be considered a continuation of the European actions of the last decade in this field.
The Lithuanian could oversee the last implementation part of the reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which will end with an evaluation by 2022 of the main achievements in terms of the social dimension, climate adaptation and clean oceans.
The zero-tolerance approach to illegal, unreported t and unregulated fishing (IUU), even considering a tool of last resort like the ban on fisheries imports, sounds like a threat to the newly-established trade relationship between the EU and Vietnam.
Under an EU warning system against countries practising illegal fishing activities, in 2017 the European Commission issued a “yellow card” to Vietnam, which remains under the threat of a red card which would prohibit the Asian country from exporting seafood to the EU.
However, the call for Europe to lead the front of countries seeking a global ban on fisheries subsidies as a source of overfishing, could clash with the willingness of some member states to introduce EU financial support for vessel construction and other investments in fishery capacity from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) after 2020.
Some environmentalist NGOs, however, consider these measures as fully-fledged harmful subsidies.