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Europe

New EU Commission Faces Intense Grilling

The EU Parliament has begun questioning incoming EU commissioners, largely to sniff out potential conflicts of interests of a few wealthy members. The hearings will determine whether the 24-member team will be accepted.

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The incoming EU commissioners are under the magnifying glass

Tough but fair is how EU parliamentarians say they want to be, as they began grilling the first of 24 designated EU commissioners appointed by EU Commission President-designate Jose Manuel Barroso on Monday.

Each of the members of the European Union executive will face three hours of questioning by parliamentary committees on issues ranging from Turkey's membership bid, immigration, fiscal discipline and taxation.

Jose Manuel Durao Barroso

Jose Manuel Durao Barroso

Barroso won strong endorsement in July from the 732-member parliament, but his team still needs parliamentary approval to take office on November 1 for a five-year term. The EU parliament can reject Barroso's entire team but not individual commissioners.

Most of the questioning over the next two weeks will focus on potential conflicts of interest in Barroso's team, which is considered more market friendly than the last one and includes some wealthy and influential members.

All 24 commissioner-designates have to file statements of financial interests, declare their assets and fill out a questionnaire before they submit themselves to the grilling.

A controversial candidate

Die ehemalige niederländische Verkehrsministerin und künftige EU-Kommissarin Neelie Kroes

Neelie Kroes

One of the most controversial members of Barroso's team to take the stand on Tuesday is Dutch politician and businesswoman Neelie Kroes, who is to succeed Mario Monti as the European Union's antitrust chief, arguably one of the EU's most powerful offices.

Kroes, who is a member of the Dutch free-market liberal party and has served two terms as minister for transport, public works and telecommunications during the 1980s, also has considerable links to big business. She has sat on the boards of a dozen top European companies and is reported to be fabulously wealthy, owning a house in an upscale neighborhood of The Hague as well as two office buildings.

EU parliamentary members have already cast doubts on whether Kroes can take on a job that so obviously clashes with her vested interests in the world of politics and business.

"Neelie Kroes was on the supervisory board of numerous companies which are directly or indirectly affected by the activities of the commission's competition authority," said Pervenche Beres, chairwoman of the parliamentary committee on economic and monetary affairs. "That's why it's a justified ethical issue to scrutinize her."

For her part, Kroes has said she has already sold all stocks and options and resigned from company boards as well as pledged to distance herself from cases concerning firms she may have been involved in. She also promised that if decisions are to be made by the EU antitrust authority which involve former employers, she will restrain from voting on it.

But, it remains to be seen whether Kroes will sufficiently convince all parliamentary members of her neutrality.

Conflict of interest not only sticking point

Bildergalerie EU-Kommissare Rocco Buttiglione Vice President Justice, Freedom and Security Italian

Rocco Buttiglione

Other incoming EU commissioners, who, like Kroes, may be in for a rough ride during the interrogation include Mariann Fischer Boel, nominee for the EU's agriculture portfolio, and Italian Rocco Buttiglione, assigned by Barroso to be in charge of asylum and immigration policy.

Boel attracted the attention of EU parliamentarians because she owns land that includes a farm receiving EU subsidies and Buttiglione has stirred controversy by his support for plans to set up asylum camps outside EU borders. Boel, however, has since been cleared after she sold her shares in Danish sugar producer Danisco.

Expertise of candidates also checked

But it's not just potential conflict of interest that the EU questioners are interested in. Other nagging conflict points include the political past of some commissioners from the new eastern European members as well as the expertise and experience of some incoming commissioners.

Verheugen: Porträt, EU-Kommissar

Günter Verheugen

For instance, there is little doubt that German EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen, who has been responsible for Eastern European expansion so far, has gathered valuable experience when it comes to EU diplomacy and working methods. But it remains questionable whether he has the necessary skills for his new portfolio of "Industries and Companies," which Verheugen has agreed to take on following pressure from the German government.

The chairman of the parliamentary committee on industry, research and energy, Giles Chichester, has said Verheugen will be examined thoroughly. Verheugen is expected to be grilled on his intentions and whether he will pursue a liberal market course as well as ideas for growth and innovation within the framework of the so-called Lisbon Agenda, which refers to a March 2000 EU summit when EU leaders and governments agreed to make the EU "the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010."

"I want to hear from Mr Verheugen, how he plans to enforce the Lisbon Agenda, which so far has only been talked of, but not implemented," Chichester said.

The EU parliament is expected to vote on the new team by the end of October. The questioning of the EU commissioner-designates is public and can be followed live on the Internet under www.europarl.eu.int in 19 languages.

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