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New EU commissioners get grilled

Bernd Riegert / cdOctober 3, 2014

Twenty-seven candidates, 45 questions each. Their answers are intentionally left open ended and as vague as possible. For EU Commission hopefuls, the most important thing is not to wobble.

Pierre Moscovici
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Just one of the 27 candidates aiming for a post in the EU Commission had serious problems after the first hearing in European Parliament: Jonathan Hill, the commissioner from Britain whose duty it is to oversee financial markets, was given a sort of detention.

Next week he'll once again have to speak before relevant committees in what is not, however, a formal hearing. A British Conservative, Lord Hill, will use that chance to try and dispel any lingering doubts - lodged primarily in the heads of Left and Green politicians - over the course of a 45-question, three-hour grilling. His critics paint him asa lobbyist in disguise, who secretly represents Britain's financial sector. Hill, who ran a private company in the service sector up until a few years ago, denies those assertions.

"I did not come here to promote the interests of particular groups. I am not here as a representative of the City of London," said Hill, who's also a close confidante of the EU-critical British prime minister, David Cameron.

Hill spoke in favor of regulating financial markets, but conceded that he'll have to get up to speed on some of the specifics - that he doesn't have a five-year working program mapped out just yet. Conservative lawmakers praised him, while those whose politics diverge from his do not.

Jonathan Hill
Lord Hill stressed that he neither sits on a corporate board nor owns any sharesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Warnand

A similar partisan pattern appeared at other hearings for the less-than-certain Commission candidates. Hungary's candidate for culture, education and citizenship, Tibor Navracsics, was pestered first and foremost by left-oriented and liberal parliamentarians. Their Conservative colleagues, by contrast, highlighted the qualities of the one-time minister in the cabinet of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Navaracsics himself admitted that the relationship between the EU and Orban has not always been a simple one - like bitter disputes over restrictive media laws. "That has now been overcome," Navracsics said. The relevant cultural committee in the European Parliament has not yet decided whether to request a follow-up hearing.

Witnesses next week

A final decision on the future EU commissioners can only first be reached, in any case, during general testimonies next week. At that point the factions within the EU parliament will deal once more with the results of the hearings.

The heads of the factions will then wheel and deal on whether a particular candidate will be approved - or not. If a Conservative politician is to be rejected, then a Socialist might expect to meet the same fate. As one experienced parliamentarian who wished to remain unnamed told DW: "Ultimately, there's an informal grand coalition in parliament. Neither Socialists nor Conservatives would accept it if just one from their own ranks had to go."

In the event parliament does flex its muscles and demand a sacrificial lamb, it might end up affecting a liberal candidate. That's why Alenka Bratuschek, a liberal with no large party backing, is considered a wobbler. She has been criticized for effectively electing herself to the position during her tenure as prime minister of Slovenia. Her hearing is scheduled for next Monday.

EU Commission building
To join the EU Commission, nominees undergo a vetting process more rigorous than in their home countriesImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"European rules apply"

In the Socialists' camp, it's the proposed economics commissioner, Pierre Moscovici of France (pictured top), who stands in the crosshairs. Moscovici repeatedly failed to comply with new debt rules in the EU's Stability and Growth Pact as former French finance minister. Now, he is to be responsible for the surveillance of budgetary discipline for all EU countries. Many Conservative parliamentarians view that contradiction as irresolvable.

One of those criticizing him is Bernd Lucke, head of the anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. He wondered out loud why France had never adhered to the European Commission's policy recommendations. Pierre Moscovici said he had always abided by European law during his tenure as minister of finance.

"I am, in fact, French, but I will, as a European commissioner, work impartially according to the rules, and ensure that all member states comply with these rules," Moscovici said again and again, appearing almost exasperated. After three hours of grilling, Moscovici remained confident - but also admitted, "The questions were not always easy."

Meanwhile, President Juncker's confidential division of labor plans for the Commission's new team became public. In that paper, future Economics Commissioner Moscovici is compelled to make any and all decisions only in conjunction with EU Commissioner Vladis Dombrovskis. Moscovici maintained however that the vice president was not, in fact, his superior.

Green EU parliamentarian Sven Giegold said the French candidate would be walled in by the conservative Dombrovski so that "uncompromising" austerity measures could continue.

Will they all come through?

With roughly half the required hearings taken care of, the same seasoned parliamentarian told DW that he assumes all candidates will likely make the cut and that parliament will give its stamp of approval to President Jean-Claude Juncker's personnel package on October 22.

Sven Giegold
Sven Giegold sees a move to restrain the Moscovici's ability to operate independentlyImage: DW/M. Banchón

That also applies to incoming Commissioner for the Environment Miguel Arias Canete of Spain, who apologized at his hearing for sexist comments about the intelligence of woman made during the European election campaign. "That was stupid," he said. The Conservative has also been critiqued for having close ties with the oil sector in his home country: His brother-in-law works in the industry. "He's not a direct family member. I see no conflict of interest," Canete said, attempting to address those concerns.

Next week, the technical survey continues for the remaining candidates. No member state in the EU, by the way, conducts such a thorough examination of its own candidates for executive positions. In Germany, ministers are more or less appointed at the recommendation of the head of government.