Progressive EU Lawmakers Oppose Former Shell Employee's Bid to Become Climate Chief

Former Netherlands' Foreign Minister and E.U. Commissioner-designate for Climate Action Wopke Hoekstra takes part in a hearing of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety (ENVI) in Strasbourg, France on October 2, 2023.

(Photo: Frederick Florin FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Progressive EU Lawmakers Oppose Former Shell Employee's Bid to Become Climate Chief

"We believe that we have to change the system, not the climate," said one lawmaker. "Wopke Hoekstra's track record represents the system."

Progressive members of the European Parliament on Wednesday said they would vote against two candidates to serve as the European Commission's top officials overseeing the government's Green Deal and climate action agenda, remaining steadfast in their opposition to the politicians' climate records, conflicts of interest, and statements on chemical regulations and arguing that "people and planet deserve better."

Members of the Left in the European Parliament group said they had voted against Wopke Hoekstra and Maroš Šefčovič in the Committee on Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety (ENVI) on Wednesday morning as the panel approved their bids for European Commissioner for Climate Action and Executive Vice President of the European Commission for the European Green Deal, respectively.

Hoekstra, a former employee of oil and gas giant Shell and fossil fuel-linked consultant group McKinsey, has garnered extensive criticism from the left-wing group and from dozens of civil society organizations due to his employment history.

"We believe that we have to change the system, not the climate," said Left MEP Silvia Modig of Finland. "Wopke Hoekstra's track record represents the system. We stand alongside civil society. Without a sense of urgency, we will continue on the same path we have for fifty years. Emissions will continue to grow, temperatures will continue to rise, and catastrophic climate events will persist."

"To entrust the helm of our climate policy to a former Shell employee, whose career trajectory clearly prioritizes profit over the planet, must serve as a wake-up call."

The full parliament is expected to hold a final vote on the commissioner-designates on Thursday, and with the Dutch Labour Party also indicating it would also vote against Hoekstra, Euronewsreported that "a political veto on either candidate is still possible."

The ENVI committee approved the two candidates two days after they were questioned extensively about their climate records and commitments.

Hoekstra and Šefčovič failed to garner the support of two-thirds of the committee members on Tuesday, as many lawmakers still had concerns about their commitments to carbon emissions reduction targets and other issues.

Hoekstra, who resigned as the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands last month, worked at Shell from 2002-04 and at McKinsey for a decade before entering government.

He claimed in his remarks to the committee this week that he now believes "fossil fuels must become history, the sooner the better," and that oil companies that have known about their activities' link to the climate crisis and have "sought to ignore the evidence" are "unethical."

He also promised to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and said he supports a target of slashing emissions by at least 90% by 2040—the lower end of a recommendation made earlier this year by the European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change, which said the bloc must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90-95% by 2040 in order to limit planetary heating to 1.5°C this century.

Despite some of Hoekstra's climate pledges to the committee, said the Left, he "represents the fossil fuel lobby and does not convincingly demonstrate competence as a climate protector."

Hoekstra's bid to lead the E.U.'s climate agenda, said the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), represents the government's dismissal of 100,000 Europeans who have signed a petition opposing his candidacy and "is a symptom of a broader systemic issue: fossil fuel influence on our decision-making."

"To entrust the helm of our climate policy to a former Shell employee, whose career trajectory clearly prioritizes profit over the planet, must serve as a wake-up call," said the co-presidents of the Left, MEPs Manon Aubry of France and Martin Schirdewan of Germany. "It extends beyond the immediate concern of Hoekstra potentially reversing climate action; it symbolizes a broader issue of intertwining politics with fossil fuel interests. It's a call to fortify our political landscape, creating a firewall that safeguards decision-making for the greater good and minimizes undue influence of private interests."

The Left's concerns were bolstered last week by a letter to the ENVI committee signed by 50 groups including CEO, Global Witness, and Friends of the Earth International.

The groups warned that as minister of finance in the Netherlands, Hoekstra "pleaded against rapidly ending gas exploitation... despite the massive negative impacts gas drilling had on hundreds of thousands of citizens" and "personally blocked government plans for reducing nitrogen emissions that were aiming to bring Dutch policy measures in line with E.U. legislation on nature protection."

"If we want to prevent and mitigate climate disasters in the future, it is crucial that governments free themselves from the influence of the fossil fuel industry by introducing and implementing a conflict-of-interest framework," said the organizations. "Making a person with strong and long-time links with oil and gas interests responsible for E.U. climate policies is the wrong step."

Šefčovič's answers to the committee's questions this week also left progressive lawmakers dismayed, as he refused to commit to a timeline for toxic chemical regulations and and food sustainability rules.

"The Left does not consider that the commissioner has shown an awareness of the need to accelerate on the European Green Deal by failing to commit to deliver on critical promised legislative proposals in this mandate," said the group of Šefčovič, who currently serves at executive vice president of the European Green Deal, overseeing interinstitutional relations and foresight.

CEO noted that campaigners' objections to the two candidates pushed the ENVI committee to delay its approval this week and to demand transparency from Hoekstra about the clients he worked with at McKinsey.

"Bittersweet win for transparency. Conflict of interests firmly on the agenda," said CEO. "We will be watching."

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