As Karmenu Vella makes clear, "the overall priority of this commission rightfully remains the creation of jobs and an increase in economic growth." Growth has become a central mantra for the college of commissioners under president Jean-Claude Juncker, but, says the Maltese official, "despite Europe’s economic challenges, 95 per cent of its citizens still care deeply about the environment".
Against the backdrop of this delicate balancing act, the EU’s environment, maritime affairs and fisheries commissioner has been handed a tough gig and he knows it. "I have been given a mandate to assure the sustainability of our environment, the preservation of our natural resources, the conservation of our marine biological resources and the management of our fisheries policy," he says. The truly challenging part of this mandate is to ensure that these responsibilities are "mutually beneficial with Europe’s overarching institutional aims", but Vella is also clear about the way forward. "I strongly believe that growth will be impossible if it is not fair and sustainable. The contribution that the green and blue economy can make to stimulating investment is therefore hugely significant."
"Despite Europe’s economic challenges, 95 per cent of its citizens still care deeply about the environment"
"One of the big successes of recent years," he stresses, "is the increase in awareness of how our environment has an impact on each and every one of us. The importance of the environment to EU citizens is evident." Vella also highlights the vital nature of maritime affairs as "23 of the 28 EU member states have a coastline", adding that, "the consumption of fish and seafood is a pervasive and ever growing staple of our food culture."
With three crucial pillars forming his brief, Vella points to the importance of collaboration within his role, saying, "my opinion is that success can only be achieved by us working together, as EU institutions, as policymakers with member states, and, most importantly, as fellow citizens." With this in mind, the Maltese former tourism and aviation minister is supportive of the commission’s new working structure, saying, "because of the policy areas assigned to me, I have already developed particularly close relationships with many of my colleagues, as we work on challenges in an integrated way". "Working with my fellow commissioners towards the energy union, towards better regulation or towards jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness keeps us focused on the priority, namely how will this help meet the needs of citizens." As an example, the commissioner says he will be "looking to lead the task, with our global partners, of defining the management and governance of our planet’s oceans. Ocean governance should include both an environmental aspect and an economic aspect. This will mean strong cooperation within the commission on security, research, innovation and energy issues, as well as my own responsibilities." Vella also holds high hopes for relations with MEPs, saying, "as a parliamentarian for nearly four decades, I appreciate the key role that the European parliament plays. My hearing before parliament was a very healthy exercise in democratic accountability. Now that I have been sworn in as a commissioner, I have already started carrying out my commitment of regular attendance before the relevant committees and in Strasbourg plenary sessions."
"I think that if we are going to look at the future we cannot talk about the economy in isolation: we have to start talking about a more affordable and resilient economy"
One of the key challenges facing Vella is the balancing of economic and environmental concerns and for the commissioner it is a shift in mindset - or sea change - that is required. "I think that if we are going to look at the future we cannot talk about the economy in isolation: we have to start talking about a more affordable and resilient economy. It means looking at the long-term viability of a business model by ensuring the continuity of resources. This is why the concept of the circular economy is so exciting," he adds, underlining that "the commission has committed, in its work programme, to tabling a more ambitious proposal in this area during 2015".
One of Vella’s final points is to highlight the importance of exploiting the 'blue' economy, which he says, "represents roughly 5.4 million jobs and generates a gross added value of almost €500bn a year. There is a lot of potential and we are already working to multiply those numbers. Blue growth and the green economy will be key building blocks of the competitive Europe of jobs, growth and fairness, both because of the jobs that they will create and because of the potential for reducing Europe’s dependence on imported resources."
Karmenu Vella is European environment, maritime affairs and fisheries commissioner