MEPs explore new ways to monitor EU commissioners
The European Parliament likes to give a hard time to commissioner candidates.
It makes them pass a three-hour grilling that examines their political views, skills and financial interests before they can take up their seat at the Berlaymont, the European Commission headquarters.
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But MEPs lack any similar process to make sure that commissioners stick to their duties, as set out in the commission’s code of conduct, after they start work.
The parliament’s largest group, the centre-right EPP, also is not keen too create a new procedure that would change the situation in a case linked to one of its own.
EU climate change boss Miguel Arias Canete - a member of the EPP political family - stirred debate when he was first nominated for the job in 2014 because he owned shares in two oil companies that he sold to his brother-in-law a few days before his parliament hearing.
The criticism on conflict of interest has continued to dog his work.
More recently, he was put in the spotlight as the Panama Papers leak on tax dodging named his wife Micaela Domecq Solis-Beaumont as the owner of an offshore firm that Canete never mentioned in his EU financial declaration. Commissioners and candidates are due to declare their own riches and those of their spouses.
The far-left GUE/NGL group, at the request of Spanish members from the Podemos party, has tried to summon Canete to the plenary to give explanations.
But European Parliament (EP) group leaders and EP boss Martin Schulz have ruled out holding a public grilling. Instead, Schulz asked the legal affairs committee (Juri) to question Canete for one hour behind closed doors.
The meeting took place on 12 July and failed to satisfy Canete’s critics.
Canete reportedly sailed through the investigation, denying allegations against him and saying he had behaved in both a legal and moral way, according to EUobserver sources.
MEPs from different political groups who attended the meeting said they could neither confirm he had breached the code of conduct, nor clear his name, because they weren’t given the means to properly screen him.
The legal committee’s coordinators agreed that each group could file beforehand three written questions that Canete would answer orally.
Only selected MEPs from the legal committee were allowed to participate in the hearing. There was limited time for follow-up questions, and no record was take of the commissioner’s answers. Some questions were leaked to the media already before the hearing.
Socialist MEP Evelyn Regner told this website Canete had side-stepped her question on whether there were any investigations - either by national authorities or the European anti-fraud office, Olaf - going on against him.
Green MEP Heidi Hautala added that the hearing had allowed to confirm that Canete’s wife still owned the shell company, which still didn’t figure in the commissioner’s declaration - he claimed this isn’t necessary, as the company is dormant.
No official accusations
Tadeusz Zwiefka, who is the EPP coordinator in the committee, warned against making too much of the hearing, however.
”There are no official accusations against the commissioner. The fact that we held a hearing doesn’t mean there is anything to get excited about. The parliament invited Mr Canete to come over, so he did,” Zwiefka told EUobserver.
Christofer Fjellner, another EPP member, said green and left-wing politicians had made Canete into a symbol that was convenient for them to attack.
”I don’t think there is anything he can do to convince them,” he told this website.
The EPP does not want to put in place a framework that would allow to scrutinise commissioners in a more neutral way, either.
The group successfully stopped Juri coordinators from issuing a joint recommendation to the conference of presidents on how such a mechanism could look like.
Each political faction instead presented individual recommendations, which were seen by EUobserver.
Some groups - such as GUE/NGL and Greens - still want a plenary debate and resolution.
Socialists ruled out a plenary hearing, but would like to cooperate with Olaf on Canete’s case.
Several groups also wanted him to be heard by the parliament’s investigative committee on money laundering, tax avoidance and tax evasion (Pana).
Most political factions recommended that some kind of mechanism is worked out and the code of conduct for commissioners is revised. But the EPP has recommended closing the file, and was supported by the conservative ECR.
Which of ideas will be implemented was left hanging in the air pending the parliament’s summer recess. Most MEPs left Brussels before the deadline for submitting recommendations, which expired last Friday (15 July).
Canete's office told EUobserver that it is not aware of any investigations against the commissioner and that his declaration is duly fulfilled.
"The conference of presidents [EP political chiefs] considered that since some allegations had been made on the national press, the parliament could invite the commissioner and hear him. The commissioner accepted the invitation as he always does with the parliament," a spokesperson said.