26th Oct 2016

MEPs push for oversight on commissioners

  • Pascal Durand, the Green MEP that wants to control commissioners through better scrutiny of interest declarations (Photo: European Parliament)

One week after revelations that former EU commissioner Neelie Kroes had failed to declare her directorship of an offshore firm in 10 years in office, the European Parliament took a small step toward strengthening oversight.

One of parliament’s smallest groups, the Greens, has proposed that the assembly should, in future, have the right to block candidates from conflicted portfolios or, in extreme cases, if they failed to come clean on their financial interests, from assuming office.

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  • Dariusz Rosati, the Polish EPP politician, says the next Kroes case is best avoided by cracking down on tax avoidance (Photo: European Parliament)

The EU parliament already holds hearings with commissioner-designates, and can blackball candidates if they do not know their portfolio or for political reasons.

But its power to vet candidates over conflicts of interest is symbolic.

On paper, commissioner-hopefuls have to submit declarations of interest for scrutiny by the parliament’s legal affairs committee (Juri).

But Juri MEPs “can only check whether declaration forms have been filled out, signed and dated in the proper format,” Pascal Durand, a French MEP in the Green group who drafted the new oversight proposals, told this website.

Referring to the hearings of commissioner-designates, he added: “We can ask questions to evaluate a candidate's political abilities, but it’s not a suitable method for probing vested interests”.

The debate on oversight comes after revelations, dubbed Bahamas leaks, last week, that Kroes failed to declare directorship of a Bahama-registered company with interests in the US energy sector.

Kroes admitted wrongdoing, but blamed a ”clerical” error.

The current climate change commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete, has also prompted oversight questions.

Shortly before the summer recess, Juri summoned Canete to ask why he had failed to declare his wife’s offshore firm, as revealed in the Panama Papers leaks.

Independent special body

He said the firm was “dormant”, but left-wing and green MEPs said he avoided hard questions.

The controversies risk further damaging EU institutions’ credibility, at a time of heightened scrutiny after Brexit.

Durand's report on EU parliament oversight was well received by other groups at a Juri hearing on Monday (26 September).

He told EUobserver the European Commission was wrong to rely on commissioner’s good faith on declarations of interest.

But he added that even if his proposals were adopted, they would not be enough to stop commissioners hiding assets.

”For that, we would need an independent special body with human and financial resources, which would have the right to investigate public officials and to pronounce sanctions," said the French MEP.

The centre-left S&D group, the second largest in the EU parliament, threw its weight behind Durand’s report on Monday.

Loopholes in tax laws

But the centre-right EPP, the largest bloc, said the problem didn't come from the EU institutions.

Tadeusz Zwiefka, a Polish centre-right MEP, said the responsibility lay with member states as they nominated the candidates in the first place.

"It's us who are taking the fire for Neelie Kroes," he said, "instead of the Dutch government that appointed her."

Dariusz Rosati, another Polish centre-right MEP, said loopholes in international tax law were to blame.

”Ms Kroes’ name is of course headline-grabbing but we should look to the cause of this mess, namely insufficient international cooperation on tax issues,” he told EUobserver.

Rosati is the EPP spokesman in the Pana committee, a new organ created to investigate the truth behind the Panama Papers and Bahamas leaks, which starts work on Tuesday.

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