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Lithuania’s EC Environment Commissioner in a unique position to make change in the Baltics

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Virginijus Sinkevičius

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

After the hearing in the European Parliament this week, Virginijus Sinkevičius, Lithuania’s 28-year-old nominee for European commissioner, is set to become European Commission’s youngest Commissioner ever.

Sinkevičius has been handed the environment and oceans portfolio in the new European Commission. But will he be able to make an impact tangible not only across the bloc, but in the region and the country he is coming from, the Baltics and Lithuania, too?

Environmentalist MP wants Baltic Sea issues to be addressed

Linas Balsys, a Lithuanian MP and environmentalist, told BNN he expects Sinkevičius to tackle issued related to pollution of the Baltic Sea.

«The situation is deteriorating and, for me, the way he will address the issue will be the litmus paper of his work efficiency,» the lawmaker said.

The other thing he expects from the to be EC Commissioner is his efforts aimed at harnessing pollution in agricultural activities.

«These two seem to me the most acute environmental issues we are dealing in Lithuania. Sure, beside old car pollution,»  he emphasised.

VU Professor: Sinkevičius in a unique position

Tomas Janeliūnas, professor of political science at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science (IIRPS), told BNN that Sinkevičius’ post will be more of a technocratic character rather then a political position.

 «But it could be also interpreted that his position will have less political weight and thence he will be able to work on the implementation and monitoring of specific commitments of the EU,»  he noted.

Asked where the Commissioner could significantly contribute to the Baltics’ environmental agenda, Janeliūnas said that the young European politician now could make change in shaping up a new, more pro-European approach towards environmental issues.

Baltics are lagging on climate issues

«In terms of environmental consciousness, the Baltics are lagging well behind the Western Europeans, leave alone the Scandinavians. The understanding of climate change and its projected aftermaths is just too little in the Baltics,» Janeliūnas underscored to BNN.

«Importantly, Baltic societies and politicians deem environmental issues as secondary or even tertiary. As a result, the pressure from the public to address environmental issues is from nil to little. Furthermore, the topic is often perceived as being forcefully pushed through by Brussels, with little importance to Vilnius, Riga or Tallinn. So Sinkevičius is in a unique position to change that,» IIRPS professor emphasised.

According to him, the improper attitude towards environmental issues in Lithuania is especially reflected on little or unsuccessful efforts to tax old polluting cars.

«Our Seimas is just not up to that,» Janeliūnas pointed out.

Lithuanian legislature, Seimas, is debating this week imposing vehicle pollution tax from the new year, but due to huge opposition to it from many of the MPs and the public, it remains to be seen if the legislators will vote for it.

Meanwhile, analysts and dealers say sales of second-hand cars with higher CO2 emissions are likely to go up toward the end of the year – before the planned vehicle pollution tax takes effect.

Analyst counts on Commissioner-designate’s youth

Ieva Petronytė-Urbonavičienė, a lecturer at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science of Vilnius University, told BNN that the environment and oceans portfolio assigned to EC commissioner-designate, Virginijus Sinkevičius, will involve a lot of invisible but important work, which coupled with the Lithuanian representative’s young age, stamina and energy can be translated in tangible decisions for all the European Union, and the Baltics, too,

«Yet I really could not single out any specific environmental question that would be more important to the Baltics than to the rest of the bloc,» she underlined.

Won’t Sinkevičius be overshadowed?

Political scientist Ramunas Vilpišauskas says the most sought-after positions usually include those related to competition, external trade, monetary policy and internal market as the EU has most competence here.

In his words, the EU has limited power in the area of environmental protection but the growing importance of climate change is making this area more and more important politically.

«It’s an important responsibility politically but that importance will probably be allocated to the European Commission Vice President Timmermans, and Lithuania’s delegated commissioner will be in charge of only part of that area. And we can only guest which part it will be,» Vilpišauskas  said to a Lithuanian news agency.

Fisheries issue more important with UK out of EU

Linas Kojala, director of the Eastern Europe Studies Center, paid attention to the fact that Sinkevičius’ «portfolio falls under one of the key priorities, which is green economy,» and Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is making the fisheries issue even more important.

«In the outgoing Commission, the commissioner in charge of this area had quite a lot of weight in dealing with issues related to the fisheries policy, which is important in the Brexit context, as well as with to biological diversity. We could probably expect a similar thematic spectrum now as well, but a lot of things will depend on the relation with executive Vice President Timmermans,» he said.

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Many important tasks await

According to Jovita Neliupšienė, the environment commissioner will be having to oversee the implementation of EU legislation and represent the bloc in negotiations with third countries.

«We are not aware of and do not see much of the hard work that is done by the commissioner responsible for environmental protection, waste disposal, cleaning, and implementing the directives and regulations that the EU adopts,» the ambassador told reporters in Brussels.

«We do not see that day-to-day work with member states to oversee and ensure that all of us understand the regulations and directives we are adopting,» Neliupšienė said.

«Another area of huge responsibility, which we sometimes may not notice but which is visible from an international perspective, is to speak to third countries, non-EU countries, to make the world a cleaner, more sustainable, healthier place,» she added.

According to Neliupšienė, Sinkevičius will also have to deal with issues related to the Baltic Sea, such as pollution, intensive shipping and fishing quotas.

PM: Sinkevičius will encourage Central and Eastern Europe

Lithuanian PM Saulius Skvernelis claims that Sinkevičius would encourage Central and Eastern European countries to do more for climate change and environmental protection.

«If we deal with those challenges, it will be a huge and important contribution to our future and the future of our children,» the Lithuanian prime minister said.

EC President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has proposed Sinkevičius for environment and oceans commissioner, but he needs MEPs’ approval to be given the job.

Final decision is due on October 17

In the EP hearing, Sinkevičius, said he was part of a generation with the European idea in its DNA.

«To me, Europe means freedom, fairness and openness and opportunities,” the candidate said in English in his introductory statement. At the same time, it means taking responsibility. The latest wave of climate strikes show that Generation Y and Generation Z are already to take responsibility,» he said, referring to Greta Thunberg, a courageous teenager environmentalist from Sweden. He however did not mention her name.

MEPs asked several tens of questions falling within the sphere of Sinkevičius’ proposed environment and oceans portfolio during the hearing which lasted about two and a half hours. Most of the MEPs who publicly expressed their opinion, particularly those from the European People’s Party, the biggest group in the EP, said that he had performed well. The final evaluation is to be made on October 17.

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