Friday, 4 December 2009

Potočnik as Environment Commissioner – industry in the drivers seat?

One of the remarkable aspects of Barroso’s decisions on the portfolios of the new Commission team is that all 13 current Commissioners that continue in Barroso-II will get a new portfolio. The logic behind these transfers is not always exactly clear and in some cases Barroso’s choices are very worrying. Take the example of Janez Potočnik who after five years as Research Commissioner is now proposed as new Environment Commissioner.

An Environment Commissioner should be strongly determined to defend the need for ambitious environmental protection laws and policies that can move societies away from unsustainable over-consumption that causes massive damage not only in Europe, but across the world. Standing firm against industry lobby groups that seek to block, delay and water down such policies, is a crucial element of the job. And there, Potočnik’s record as Commissioner for Research does not necessarily bode well. Judging from his approach to the European Technology Platforms, Potočnik may not be the most well-equipped to handle the heavy industry lobbying pressures that he will face as Environment Commissioner.

The European Technology Platforms play a key role in shaping the allocation of EU research funding (FP7), which concerns very large sums of taxpayers’ money. During Potočnik’s tenure as Research Commissioner, many of these advisory bodies were heavily dominated by, if not almost exclusively composed of representatives of large corporations with a direct commercial interest in the area on which the advisory groups were to formulate proposals. Examples include the Technology Platforms on agrofuels, ‘clean coal’, security research and biotechnology.

In the example of the Technology Platform on agrofuels (EBFTP), lobbyists managed to shape the research priorities in a way that opened up for their companies getting hold of millions of euros of public money to promote potentially very harmful technologies such as genetically modified trees. Many of the companies that participated in the EBFTP have received EU funding for their research projects, including Bayer, Shell, Syngenta, Novozymes, SEKAB, Abengoa, Repsol and SweTree Technologies. The European Ombudsman is investigating a complaint by CEO into these matters.

Disturbingly, this industry capture was not an accident, but the result of a conscious strategy from Potočnik’s side. In a letter to CEO (June 2007), Commissioner Potočnik justified the dominance of industry in these platforms saying: “European Technology Platforms have been conceived as a means to help realise the Lisbon Strategy. The platforms can play a key role in better incorporating industry’s needs into EU research priorities by bringing together stakeholders, led by industry, to define a Strategic Research Agenda and to suggest possible directions for its implementation. This is the underlying rationale for the deliberate industrial focus of technology platforms, which was indeed, as you note correctly, reflected in BIOFRAC and is also manifest in the composition of the Biofuels Technology Platform.”

If Potočnik would display a similar pro-corporate bias as Environment Commissioner, this would seriously undermine the effectiveness and credibility of EU environmental policy.


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