22nd Oct 2020

German commissioner counting on MEPs for coal subsidies

  • Coal: Oettinger is said to have felt the rage of Berlin for skipping a crucial commission meeting (Photo: AdamCohn)

In line with the German government, energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger is counting on MEPs' support for an extension until 2018 of an EU deadline for closing subsidised coal mines, reversing an earlier proposal by the commission which was adopted when he skipped a key meeting.

"The Parliament will be voting in plenary next week and from the committee work it looks as if we're talking about 2018," Mr Oettinger told a press conference on Wednesday (17 November) when asked about the coal mine deadline.

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With both big groups in the European Parliament in favour of the extension, the vote next week in Strasbourg seems to be a no brainer, despite criticism from Green MEPs who point to the hypocrisy of Europe making CO2 reduction targets by 2020 while at the same time extending the subsidies for heavily polluting coal mines.

The Parliament's opinion, drafted by German centre-left MEP Bernhard Rapkay,and with another German from the centre-right overseeing the opposition's amendments, falls in line with what Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly asked for during a leaders' meeting in Brussels last month.

Despite being only consultative, the MEPs' opinion is awaited by member states, notably coal-intensive Germany, Spain, Poland and Romania, to be brought up as argument when taking the final decision on the commission's proposal to close down mines by 1 October 2014.

Competition ministers meeting in Brussels on 10 December will attempt to reach a final decision, if a compromise with the EU commission can be found. EU sources do not rule out a middle way penning down 2016 as the end date and less drastic phase-out measures.

If the commission does not agree to a change, member states can still overrule the 2014 deadline, but only by consensus – which is an unlikely scenario, putting the pressure on the commission to alter its position.

Speaking at the press conference, Mr Oettinger said that the European Commission will be "looking how the proposal will be dealt with" by member states and "if it will be able to gather a majority."

Unnamed German officials quoted by Reuters on Tuesday claimed that Mr Oettinger has pooled enough support within the College to pass a vote.

"The German position now has a clear majority in Brussels," the source was quoted as saying. Only the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark were still pressing for the adoption of the executive European Commission's original date of 2014, the official added.

EU officials contacted by EUobserver on Wednesday denied that the executive had changed its view or even that it had held formal consultations on the matter, however.

A conciliation meeting between ambassadors and EU commission representatives will take place on Friday (19 November).

"The EU commission is under tremendous pressure. In the view of some commissioners, the reputation of the whole institution is at stake, if we give in to pressure from Berlin," one EU official said, while requesting to remain anonymous.

"It is unacceptable that national governments can dictate on internal market issues - the core competence of the EU commission," the source added.

The German lobby is also an attempt to make up for what Mr Oettinger did not manage to achieve in July, when the EU commission, to Berlin's surprise, proposed for the heavily subsidised coal mines to be closed by 2014, four years earlier than the date envisaged by the German government.

Ms Merkel was reportedly irked when she found out that Mr Oettinger, a member of her Christian Democratic Union, was not present at that meeting, as he was travelling to the US.

According to minutes of that commission meeting seen by this website, competition chief Joaquin Almunia from Spain, also a coal-intensive economy, presented the case instead and argued in favour of a slow phase-out by 2018, in line with Berlin's demands.

But with Mr Oettinger away and three other commissioners absent, a majority spearheaded by climate action commissioner Connie Hedegaard from Denmark and her Slovene colleague in charge of enviroment succeeded in imposing the 1 October 2014 deadline.

Commenting on the bargaining, WWF expert Mark Johnston told this website: "European low-carbon leadership is on the line here. The commission must stand-up to the rent-collecting coal lobby. 

"The proposed further extension from 2011 to 2014 is already a compromise offer and one that all sides should accept. President Barroso in particular should not allow himself to be bullied when the wider European interest and reputation are at stake," he added.

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