Monday

8th Mar 2021

French EU nominee could fall after brutal hearing

  • 'I'm clean,' Sylvie Goulard pleaded, as the hard questions kept coming (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

French president Emmanuel Macron's EU nominee risks being scalped by the European Parliament (EP) after a brutal hearing that focused on financial improprieties.

The French candidate, Sylvie Goulard, told MEPs "I admit that I have made mistakes" after her cross-examination on Wednesday (2 October).

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But her mea culpas failed to stop all but one of the EP's main political groups (her own, liberal, Renew Europe faction) from calling her in for a second hearing later this month.

"We need a commissioner whose scandals will not imperil important EU projects," the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) group said.

Her misspending of tens of thousands of euros of EP funds on bogus jobs for assistants "seems to be serious enough to have sparked her resignation as defence minister in France," the Socialist & Democrats (S&D) group said.

"If, as commissioner, she is forced to face judicial proceedings, her appointment risks weakening the commission as a whole," S&D's statement added.

The 62-year old French politician is meant to take charge of the single market portfolio and to manage a €13bn European Defence Fund.

But she came to Brussels facing two ongoing enquiries - by French authorities and by the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf - into her EP funds affair, which saw her resign from her ministerial post in France two years ago.

Her former €10,000 to €13,000 a month consultancy post for a US think tank, the Berggruen Institute, also drew fire.

Goulard briefly mentioned the two issues in her opening remarks.

She went on to speak about EU support for small businesses and green technologies, the need for foreign reciprocity on open markets, and ethical rules for artificial intelligence.

But 11 out of the 25 MEPs who put questions in the hearing ignored her portfolio and asked about her financial dealings instead.

Jens Geier, a German centre-left MEP, asked if she would resign her EU post if found guilty of wrongdoing on EP spending.

Goulard said she would "respect" such a "hypothetical" outcome, but called for "presumption of innocence".

Evelyne Gebhardt, another German socialist, noted: "Honestly, I can't understand why you couldn't be a minister in your country, but you can stand as commissioner".

But Goulard said she resigned back in 2017 only because "at a moment when there was a state of emergency [following terrorist attacks in France]... I estimated in my soul and heart that I couldn't run the risk for French troops" of causing disruption.

She tried to dismiss the affair as an administrative oversight.

"It's more about an HR management issue … not a legal problem," she said.

"I'm clean," she pleaded at one point, as the questions kept coming.

Regrets

"Madam, how many French people earn €13,000 to make phone calls?", a French far-right MEP, Virginie Joron, also asked about her think-tank salary.

"I admit that these amounts are high" and that the extra income "could have upset people", Goulard said.

She added that she "regrets" taking so much money, but also that she could hold her "head high", because the job "promoted European integration" and was a way "do things with people who have influence and talent".

Some of the 14 other questions asked whether she had too many different tasks in her portfolio.

"I can only give you an abstract answer. What's clear is that I've never been afraid of hard work," the French candidate said.

European industry would have to "undergo a profound transformation" to compete on the world stage, she added in other remarks.

It would have to invest in new technologies, such as autonomous cars and low-CO2 production lines, she said.

And EU laws on tech giants such as Facebook would have to find "a balance" between free speech and blocking "people [who] incite hatred ... online", Goulard noted.

Financial wrongdoing aside, the S&D also complained "about her ability to prioritise between her different fields of work" and her lack of a "coherent strategy" for the EU economy.

But two of the French woman's liberal allies came to her defence.

Tactical reasons

"Pity that the questions didn't focus on the content of her portfolio, even though she covers one of, if not the, largest ones," Dita Charanzova, a Czech liberal MEP, tweeted after the hearing.

Claudia Gamon, an Austrian liberal deputy, also accused the EPP and S&D of political revenge because the EP had already rejected two of their candidates (from Hungary and Romania) and because, earlier this year, Macron had killed off the EPP's candidate to be European Commission president.

"The other parties appear to throw her [Goulard] to the wolves for tactical reasons," Gamon noted.

"Both parties have already 'lost' candidates in the process to date - one has the feeling that in their view it's now a Renew candidate's turn," Gamon added.

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