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19th Jul 2019

EP gears itself up for hearings of new commissioners

  • The EP is nurturing its relatively new power of being able to de facto reject single commissioner-candidates (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The European Parliament is preparing a set of "obstacle course" hearings for incoming EU commissioners with recent past form showing that at least one of the designates will fall by the wayside.

Beginning later this month (29 September), each of the 27 would-be commissioners will be subject to a three-hour long hearing which will examine their views on the EU as well as their qualifications for the post.

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"It is one of those moments where the European Parliament can show its ability to oversee what the commission does," said parliament spokesperson Jaume Duch on Wednesday (17 September).

He stressed that it is "not just window dressing" and that the hearings are a real "obstacle course" inspired by the US where Congress hears key figures coming into the administration.

Commissioners will start their homework on Thursday (18 September) when they receive their questionnaires, containing at least five questions.

They have to reply in writing by the end of next week, an exercise that they will mostly be coached through by experts in their department in the commission.

But the political ground work is already being laid with most of the commissioners in Strasbourg this week hobnobbing with key MEPs and meeting their political groups.

Once the hearing by the relevant committee is over, the committee itself makes an assessment of how it has gone - something that is then sent to all the leaders of the political groups in the parliament.

A new twist this year will be to tease out how the seven 'super' commissioners, with extra oversight powers, will work with the rest of their colleagues.

'First vice-president' Frans Timmermans, who is to be EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker's eyes, ears and every-day voice in the new commission, will be of particular interest. His will be the among the last hearings taking place in early October.

The parliament vote on the next EU commission is due to take place on 22 October - a simple majority is needed to pass the college.

Technically MEPs can only reject or approve the entire commission but in 2004 the EP, through threat alone, managed to get the Italian and Latvian candidates changed. In 2009, it was Bulgaria's candidate who was rejected.

There has already been much speculation about who could face the chop or at least a particularly tough grilling by MEPs.

Those in the potential hot seat include Spain's nominee, Miguel Arias Canete, up for the energy and environment portfolio. Canete has already said he will sell off his shares in oil companies to prevent any possible conflict of interest issues. Sexist remarks he made earlier this year may also come back to haunt him.

There is also likely to be strong political interest around Lord Hill, the UK's commissioner, who is to be in charge of financial services. The choice of dossier has already caused some grumbling in the parliament, while Lord Hill himself is a virtually unknown outside the UK.

The EP's Duch noted that the commissioners will be quizzed on European integration ideas, their political past and must "above all" show they are up for the job.

MEPs, many several of whom were commissioners in previous lives, "will know very well what did or did not happen in previous years" and will be well able to recognise when someone is "not speaking clearly to the issue," he said.

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