28th Oct 2016

Former EU climate chief defends VW post

  • Connie Hedegaard, the former climate commissioner, said it was necessary to talk to business if the green transition should happen. (Photo: Jakob Dall)

Former climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard has defended her new post at Volkswagen, while also saying that she stuck to EU rules when taking another post with refrigerator and air-conditioning company Danfoss.

The German carmaker, whose reputation has been tainted by the Dieselgate scandal, announced on Wednesday (28 September) that Hedegaard would sit on its new "sustainability council".

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”It’s an unpaid position with no strings attached," Hedegaard told EUobserver.

”We will meet once or twice a year and give advice to a company that did things in a bad way on how to become more environment-friendly and sustainable,” she said,

The Danish conservative politician was responsible for the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen 2009 when she was a minister. She was also EU commissioner for climate action from 2010 to 2014.

She currently holds a number of board positions in climate foundations, the public sector, and Danfoss.

Hedegaard was elected to Danfoss' board on 29 April, one day before the end of an 18-month transition under which ex-commissioners must ask for permission before they take up a job.

She said that she had tried to join Danfoss already during the cooling-off period but that the commission had advised her to withdraw the request.

”I think it makes sense that these transition rules exist,” Hedegaard said. ”I respect them, and Danfoss was willing to wait until the end of the ban.”

NGO complaints

The Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a transparency watch group, accused Hedegaard of greenwashing Volkswagen.

The Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (Alter-EU), a coalition gathering CEO and some 200 other public interest groups, earlier that day filed a maladministration complaint to the commission over its handling of cases related to two other ex-commissioners.

Alter-EU said the EU executive should have done more about Neelie Kroes, a Dutch politician, and Karel De Gucht, from Belgium, taking up sensitive jobs just days after the cooling-off period ended.

Kroes, formerly in charge of the digital agenda, joined the boards of US tech companies Uber and Salesforce. She was a vocal defender of Uber and even launched the hashtag #UberisWelcome after the car-ride service was banned in Brussels during her time in office.

De Gucht, the former EU trade boss, joined French-Indian steelmaker ArcelorMittal, just as the EU is passing measures to protect its market from Chinese steel.

Alter-EU said ex-top officials violated their obligations, as laid down in article 245 of the EU treaty, to act with integrity and discretion also after their term in office.

The group was also ”strongly critical” of the current president, Jean-Claude Juncker, for his reaction to the news that his predecessor, Jose Manuel Barroso, had landed a top job with US investment bank Goldman Sachs.

It took Juncker two months to refer the case to the commission’s advisory ethical committee and to ask Barroso for explanations.

”In our view, this action is insufficient and comes too late for it to be an adequate response,” Alter-EU said in a statement.

Tighter rules?

Hedegaard told EUobserver that the length of the cooling-off period is open to discussion.

”But where do you set the boundary? The commission is already a frontrunner with this rule, there are no limits on government member,” she told this website.

”I never had Danfoss visiting me in my office," she added, "and I respected the rules in place."

"A lot of things happen in 18 months. I don't see why, almost two years after leaving office, it wouldn’t be in order that I work with Danfoss on such an important topic as climate change," she continued.

"If climate and environment friendly people only talk to those who are already green, how do we then make the global green transition?”, she said.

She confirmed that her tasks with the Danish company included lobbying.

Earlier this week, Juncker told the France 24 broadcaster that he was not responsible for what the former college was doing and that the commission was "by far more stricter and more severe when it comes to these issues" than any other EU institution or national government.

He added, though, that the commission was mulling a change to the rules governing current and future commissioners’ behaviour.

"We are considering if … we should amend the code of conduct”, he said.

“We have to make sure and clear that the interrelations, the interlinks between politics and business are transparent. But this is not only applying to the former commission - this is applying to all the governments in the EU," he said.

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