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18th Jan 2020

Hearings blunder offers glimpse into Juncker's working methods

  • Jean-Claude Juncker (l) pictured with his chief of staff Martin Selmayr (Photo: junckerepp)

The European Parliament’s hearing of Swedish commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom was supposed to be a no-brainer: A former MEP herself, straightforward and down-to-earth, she was never expected to be one of the "problematic" candidates.

And yet on Tuesday (30 September) it came to a vote - a measure reserved for weaker candidates, who fail to outright convince MEPs sitting on the hearing committee.

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She did pass the vote, but the blunder that caused it offers a glimpse into the working method of her future boss, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Malmstrom, the next EU trade commissioner, will be in charge of negotiating the controversial EU-US free trade agreement (TTIP). She has dealt with US negotiators in her outgoing function as home affairs commissioners, on international agreements regarding data transfers.

Her alleged closeness to the US embassy in the data protection negotiations was supposed to be the main stumbling block, for which she had prepared, deflecting all accusations.

But then came the questions about her apparent flip-flopping on a controversial issue related to the US free trade agreement: special courts where commercial disputes should be settled.

Dutch Liberal MEP Marietje Schaake pressed her on the written answers she gave to the EP, where she categorically ruled out such special courts. A later version of those replies was less categorical.

Schaake then produced a document, which still contained "track changes", showing that those changes were made by Juncker's chief of staff, Martin Selmayr.

Malmstrom did not deny the back and forth with Selmayr's office.

"Let me apologise for the confusion last Friday. The written questions were ready to send when I got a question whether I mind to include a quote by President Juncker, which of course, I do not. But then someone over-interpreted that quote a little bit and the wrong version was sent out," Malmstrom explained.

Marietje Schaake holds up a document showing that Juncker's chief of staff altered Malmstrom's replies

The quote in question included the comment "this clearly means that no investor-state dispute settlement mechanism will be part of that agreement", which was taken out in the latest version published on the European Parliament website.

Juncker's spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud on Tuesday said she would not comment on "track changes" and that the only version sent out by the commission was the "clean one" put out on the EP website.

"It is normal that they talk about political guidelines before the hearings, in that context they talked about including a quote by Mr Juncker," Bertaud said.

Selmayr himself intervened in the debate last week after a German MEP highlighted that the commission is changing course on the investor courts. "Indeed. Juncker said so on 15 July," he tweeted in reply to someone noticing that Juncker had already ruled out the inclusion of such courts in the US free trade agreement.

The Socialist group also reacted and said the categorical rejection of the investor courts "is extremely welcome news and a major victory for the [Socialist] group which has led Europe-wide calls for this mechanism to be scrapped.”

But Malmstrom, who as a Liberal is from a different political family than centre-right leader Juncker, was irritated by Selmayr's edit.

She immediately tweeted that "the sentence everybody is so excited about on ISDS … is not written by me”, only to delete her internet message minutes after.

Malmstrom was put in a difficult position because, as a member of the outgoing Barroso commission, she endorsed the so-called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) in the EU-Canada free trade deal.

The courts have since been criticised in German media and Juncker, in a bid to appease a growing dissent towards the EU-US free trade deal, in his political guidelines has said that he will not accept "that the jurisdiction of courts in the EU member states is limited by special regimes for investor disputes”.

Such courts have mostly been used by EU companies, however.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, out of 568 cases over the last 50 years, 53 percent were launched by EU firms, while only 22 percent were brought by US companies.

Outgoing trade commissioner Karel De Gucht has criticised Juncker for caving into "populism" by making such promises.

As for Schaake, she told this website that "it was gracious of commissioner (designate) Malmstrom to apologise for the fact that there was a wrong version of her letter sent to the European Parliament".

"Governments thus far mostly defend ISDS as a mechanism that helps them attract foreign direct investment. The US negotiators are also keen to have the mechanism. So the question is what the US side will ask for should ISDS be dropped by the EU," Schaake said.

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