It had been a long day for both. The Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee had, earlier in the day, already exchanged views with the Commission on developing a sustainable Blue Economy, tackled Slovenia’s Presidency programme with both its Agriculture and Environment ministers, and had heard from the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) about the State of the planet.
All this before European Commission Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal Frans Timmermans ambled into the room.
The Exec VP had earlier - from what usually well-informed sources tell us - a heated weekly College meeting ironing out the final creases of the ‘Fit for 55’ package, (which seems to have struck the Commission as a bit too ad-speak alliteration sounding and was hastily replaced by ‘Fit for 2030’).
But, as anybody who has witnessed the Dutch Social Democrat in action knows, he is indefatigable, and so, shortly after five o’clock, he started his session with the ENVI MEPs with his usual panache: “My prepared opening statement says, ‘this is truly a historic day’. I beg to differ. To the one who drafted it, I must tell you, that will depend. It could be a historic day, but we will only know in three, four or five years. Because whatever the Commission has proposed today, it will only really mean something for our citizens and for our handling of the climate crisis if you [MEPs], and the Council, turn it into legislation.”
Most MEPs - we will come to the outliers a little later - begged to differ with many going out of their way to call the day an historic one, including the coordinator of the S&D group, Jytte Guteland, who also bestowed on the Commission’s proposal her highest satisfaction rating, the one she also used when the European Climate Act was passed: “I am very happy today!”
“Pernille Weiss caught the chair and some flirting evolved, when Weiss apologised to Canfin for a ‘direct and frank, I am Danish’ critical remark, which she said had ‘nothing naughty about it. Although I am a sexologist’”
EPP Group coordinator, Peter Liese, took an almost un-German emotional tone when he summed up his approval of the package, and in particular the reform of the EU emissions trading scheme, with the words, “You know, it’s really strange. It’s the second time that I applaud the Commission, and it’s your traditional allies, the S&D and the Greens that are criticising you. But you are doing it right. You are right and the Greens are wrong, the S&D are wrong and” - pointing his finger to Pascal Canfin the ENVI Committee Chair - “Pascal, you are wrong in criticising the Commission for the new ETS.”
The ensuing heckling from various S&D and Greens/EFA members signalled to the room that some banter and light relief was not unwelcome after such a long day. Earlier, at his press conference, a colleague had confronted Timmermans with a supposed quote from the ENVI chair, Pascal Canfin, that the new proposals amounted to “political suicide”. Whatever worries Timmermans might have harboured about the confrontation with the Committee later, they proved to be unfounded.
The coordinator of the liberal Renew group, Nils Torvalds, who had his statement read by his physically present colleague Martin Hojsik, because his internet connection had gone down, not only congratulated Timmermans but also invited him for a week’s well-earned rest at his holiday house “in the Finnish archipelago”, which, he boasted, featured a “very good sauna, heated by a very small amount of biomass” and, as Hojsik, then added from his personal experience, “a very bad internet connection”.
In the catch-the-eye, the EPP’s Pernille Weiss caught the chair and some flirting evolved, when Weiss apologised to Canfin for a “direct and frank, I am Danish” critical remark, which she said had “nothing naughty about it. Although I am a sexologist.”
But now to the outliers. There weren’t that many, but it was quite clear from Timmermans’ reactions that he is not prepared to suffer climate fools gladly. ID group coordinator Sylvia Limmer’s carefully crafted intervention against Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s “childish vision of saving the world” and the “fairy-tale of cheap renewables” were politely ignored.
“Peter Liese took to an almost un-German emotional tone when he summed up his approval of the package, and in particular the reform of the EU emissions trading scheme, with the words, ‘You know, it’s strange. It’s the second time that I applaud the Commission, and it’s your traditional allies, the S&D and the Greens that are criticising you’”
To the ECR’s Anna Zalewska who had detected a Socialist conspiracy and a return to Communist-style “planned economies”, Timmermans wearily replied that yes, this was about redistribution but how it was done was a matter of political debate and the Socialists surely didn’t have a monopoly on that.
But when a Spanish member started to echo Zalewska’s sentiments and called the Green Deal an “act of colossal social engineering” and a “jungle of regulations, impositions, bans, taxes” and other Socialist horrors, Timmermans lost his cool veering into a heartfelt rant about why, oh why, Spanish politics had to be so polarised between the Partido Popular and the Socialists, but that he had always also worked well with Partido Popular politicians, even prime ministers, and that they at least all had always acknowledged the fact of the climate crisis and that it had to be tackled “so to the gentleman there I have to say…”, when he was interrupted by the cry, “but we are with you, Frans!” by a Partido Popular MEP.
The climate-sceptic Spanish MEP was, of course, Hermann Tertsch of the new right-wing populist party VOX. “Now my confusion is lifted!”, Timmermans exclaimed with obvious relief.
As the Executive Vice President mentioned repeatedly, this was only the first of many anticipated exchanges and debates he plans to have with the ENVI committee, whose members will no doubt now take the 14 legislative proposals in the package as their summer holiday reading.
As Pascal Canfin put it when he closed the session: “It’s the start of a new journey together. See you soon.”