EUOBSERVER / STRASBOURG – The election of two sectoral champions to the European parliament's industry and environment committees on Thursday (16 July) has set the stage for five years or bruising encounters between the two bodies.
Controversial German MEP Herbert Reul from the centre-right European Peoples Party was elected chairman of the powerful industry, research and energy committee while former environmentalist Jo Leinen, an MEP from the Socialists and Democrats group, takes over the helm of the legislature's environment committee.
Before the vote, a number of industry committee members expressed concern that the proposed chairman held overly close links with the business world, with the Liberal delegation saying "transparency must be the watchword."
In previous parliament negotiations on the car emissions law and on opening up the energy market in the EU, Mr Reul was accused of handing in amendments that came directly from industry.
Industry committee member and vice-president of the Greens group Claude Turmes said his party was concerned about the new chairman's close links with the industry sector. "It worries us a lot and Reul is also a climate sceptic," he said.
"If Mr Reul does not stick to the rules of the game and respect the votes of the members then probably we will have an institutional problem," he added.
However Mr Reul defended his record. "I am not close to businesses but I am certainly close to the business philosophy," he told EUobserver, adding that European businesses are currently facing the worst recession in the last half century.
"People all around Europe are losing jobs as a result of the recession, so it is not correct to say that the environment dossier is the most important," he indicated.
On the issue of whether human activity was causing climate change he said: "It's a part but it's not all."
Such tempered views on the human role in causing climate change are unlikely to be shared by the environment committee's new chairman - MEP Jo Leinen from the Socialists and Democrats group.
Mr Leinen said he was "returning to his roots" by taking on the position, highlighting his environmentalist background including a stint as environment minister for his region in Germany and various citizens initiatives before that in the 1970s.
"There is a tension between the environment and industry committees but the chairperson is not alone, it's up to the members of the committee [to make decisions], although he does have a certain influence," he told this website.
He said that the new parliamentary mechanism that enables two committees to combine and make joint decisions on contentious legislation could be used to help solve disputes between the two committees.
Economic committee gets non-euro chairwoman
The economic and monetary affairs committee, which has regular contacts with ECB chairman Jean-Claude Trichet, elected UK MEP Sharon Bowles as its chairperson.
Before her election however, the MEP moved to allay committee member concerns that her origins from a non-euro country could jeopardise the committee's work by saying she was a strong supporter of the currency.
"Ultimately the UK will not be able to stay out of the euro if you look into the long-term when it is a major reserve currency," she later told journalists.
She also said she would not be lobbying for the banking interests of the city of London, Europe's largest financial centre, indicating she intended to clearly distinguish between her personal views as an MEP and her duty to be an independent chairwoman.
"If I may be so bold, I think I will probably demark this [joint role] more clearly than has previously been the case with some continental chairs."
Surprise on foreign affairs
In a surprise turn of events, Italian MEP Gabriele Albertini from the centre-right EPP group was elected chairman of the foreign affairs committee and not Mario Mauro.
Mr Mauro had been tipped for the post having backed out of the race to win the EPP nomination for president of the parliament.
In accepting the post, Mr Albertini said: "For understandable reasons, Mario Mauro thought he could not be head of the Italian delegation and chair of the committee."
The former mayor of Milan also admitted however that Mr Mauro had more experience in the field of foreign affairs than he did.
In total twelve committee chairs were elected on Thursday, with the rest set to be elected on Monday.
Socialist MEP Vital Moreira from Portugal was elected as chair of the international trade committee, while French MEP Alain Lamassoure from the EPP group took the budgets committee.
Fellow compatriot Pervenche Beres from the Socialist grouping took the employment and social affairs committee, while UK MEP Malcom Harbour from the anti-federalist European Conservatives and Reformists group took the important internal market and consumer protection.
Legal affairs went to German MEP Klaus-Heiner Lehne from the EPP, civil liberties went to Socialist MEP Fernando Lopez Aguilar from Spain, and women's rights and gender equality went to Swedish MEP Eva-Britt Svensson from the left-wing GUE/NGL group. Petitions went to Italian MEP Erminia Mazzoni from the EPP.