Lawmakers grill Dutch ex-FM over EU climate post bid

Lawmakers grill Dutch ex-FM over EU climate post bid

Wopke Hoekstra has faced criticism from environmental activists
Wopke Hoekstra has faced criticism from environmental activists

BRUSSELS - European lawmakers will on Monday grill former Dutch foreign minister Wopke Hoekstra on his bid for a top European Union climate post, in the face of criticism from green activists over his past ties to the oil industry.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, has proposed the conservative politician, 48, take on the climate portfolio after his compatriot Frans Timmermans returned to domestic Dutch politics.

Timmermans had been a powerful executive vice president on the commission, in charge of overseeing the ambitious climate pact known as the European Green Deal.

That job has passed to Slovakia's commissioner Maros Sefcovic and Brussels now wants Hoesktra to serve under him as the official in charge of "climate action".

But Hoekstra may not face a smooth ride during the confirmation process, given his past working for energy giant Shell and hawkish economic stance when he was Dutch finance minister.

"We believe Mr Hoekstra is not the right person for this crucial position," 50 climate action groups wrote last month.

"Not only does he lack expertise and experience in dealing with climate change issues, he also has a history of aligning very closely with fossil fuel interests."

Hoekstra will face questioning by the European Parliament's environmental committee on Monday evening, before the full plenary votes on his candidacy.

If approved by MEPs and EU country leaders, Hoekstra would serve until at least May next year, when a new commission will be formed after the European Parliament elections.

Despite the short tenure, that would still see Hoekstra spearhead the EU's delegation at the crucial COP 28 climate talks starting in the United Arab Emirates at the end of next month.

"I am deeply convinced that ambitious climate action is an absolute necessity, considering the enormity of the challenge it poses both in the EU and outside," Hoekstra wrote in a written submission before the hearing.

- 'Explain it' -

The powerful left-wing Socialists and Democrats political group within the EU parliament promised Hoekstra would face a "tough" hearing.

But in the horse-trading of European politics they are keen to secure the top job for Sefcovic, who comes from their group, so could wave through Hoekstra's candidacy.

After graduating from university some 20 years ago, Hoekstra worked for Shell for two years before moving on to global consultancy giant McKinsey.

He was appointed as finance minister to serve in Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's third coalition government in 2017 before becoming foreign minister in 2022.

When his name was announced, a petition against his transfer to Brussels quickly garnered tens of thousands of signatures criticising the appointment of a "fossil fuel manager", given his Shell background.

Green groups have pointed to his record in office after he opposed ending exploitation of a major gas field, blocked measures to reduce nitrogen emissions and propped up airline KLM.

As Dutch finance minister he also ruffled many feathers in southern Europe by his tough stance on fiscal discipline, and Portugal was outraged when he suggested that southern countries should have saved more before the Covid-19 pandemic.

MEP Peter Liese, from Hoekstra's centre-right political family, on Monday brushed off the candidate's perceived lack of experience on climate issues and his ties to Shell.

"I don't think that should be an issue in the evaluation if he's capable to do the job," Liese said.

"I think he has to explain it in the hearing, what is his relationship now."

The reshuffle of key EU climate jobs comes as the bloc's green ambitions face a difficult moment.

There has been growing resistance from some EU member states, and some right-wing MEPs have called for a "pause" in environmental legislation.

There are fears that complaints over the impact of the EU's climate push on the daily lives of citizens could help spur a shift to the right at the next European elections.

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