Tuesday

10th Dec 2019

MEPs asked for final say on two nominees

  • European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen is expected to follow the legal affairs committee's 'recommendations' (Photo: European Parliament)

MEPs on the European Parliament's legal affairs committee have been tasked to say if Hungary and Romania's European Commission candidates should stay or go.

The European Parliament president, David Sassoli, asked them to do it after they sent letters saying the two nominees had "potential conflicts of interest".

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But the MEPs' letters did not state if those conflicts could be solved, for instance, by changing the portfolios, or if the candidates were deemed unfit to take up any EU post, Sassoli's spokesman, Roberto Cuillo, told EUobserver on Friday (27 September).

"We need a recommendation ... they wrote letters, but they did not give any recommendation if these conflicts of interest can be overcome or not," he said.

The EP president asked only "what the rules demand, nothing less, nothing more," Cuillo added.

The legal affairs committee acquired its new vetting powers in an EP rule change last year.

It aims to agree the updated letters to Sassoli in a meeting on Monday morning.

Its 25 MEPs now hold the power to discard candidates who were originally put forward in political deals between member states.

If they declare Hungary's Laszlo Trocsanyi or Romania's Rovana Plumb "unable" to take up any EU commission post, then the EP president, Sassoli is bound to convey that recommendation in a letter to European Commission president Ursula von Der Leyen.

Von Der Leyen would then be expected to ask Hungary or Romania for alternative names.

The committee veto is uncharted waters for EU institutions and some in Brussels are unsure how it will end.

Plumb and Trocsanyi

But for her part, Plumb, who is to take the transport portfolio, had a big personal loan and it was "not clear" how it was to be paid back, the committee's initial letter said.

Trocsanyi, who is to be enlargement commissioner, had had dealings with a Hungarian law firm which posed "concern", the committee also said.

Both candidates are now in limbo, with their public EP hearings suspended just as hearings with the 23 other nominees get under way.

For one MEP on the committee, French left-wing deputy Manon Aubry, it was "crystal clear" that both ought to go based on their financial declarations.

But if one of them was to be spared on Monday, then Trocsanyi would be the likely survivor.

Plumb's initial letter noted that her loan would "create a potential conflict of interests also in relation to other portfolios".

But the Trocsanyi letter said there was a conflict "in connection with the neighbourhood and enlargement" portfolio only, opening the door to a von der Leyen job title change.

Von der Leyen also 'checked'

The dance of letters - from committee, to Sassoli, and back, then off to von der Leyen - comes amid a backdrop of ongoing political talks in Europe.

Von der Leyen "has been in constant contact, first of all with all the leaders, then with the proposed candidates" as the vetting process unfolded, the commission's spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva, told press on Friday.

"We will be waiting for the decisions and recommendations of the European Parliament" before deciding what to do with Plumb and Trocsanyi, Andreeva said.

But von der Leyen had also done her own digging on the nominees in recent weeks, helped along by the commission's sizeable civil service, Andreeva added.

Von der Leyen had "checked their ... capability to work in the general European interest", the commission spokeswoman said.

The public hearings start quietly on Monday afternoon, with Maros Sefcovic, a Slovak former EU commissioner who is to take care of "interinstitutional relations".

But some of the other hearings might be more lively, with three candidates facing allegations of financial wrongdoing or worse.

Nominees from Belgium (hearing on 2 October), France (2 October), and Poland (1 October) are all under investigation by national or EU anti-fraud bodies.

Russia connections

And even if Hungary's Trocsanyi were to survive the legal affairs committee, the vetting process uncovered things which might make him unpopular among EP delegations from Russia-wary member states.

Trocsanyi also had "connections to Russia" that posed "concern", the committee's initial letter to EP president Sassoli, part of which was leaked to the Politico news website, said.

He had connived with Russia on extraditions of suspected arms dealers wanted by the US in his time as Hungarian justice minister, the letter added, and he had "involvement" in a contract for Russia to build a nuclear power station in Hungary called Paks II.

Trocsanyi's enlargement portfolio covers the Western Balkans, a post-conflict zone where Russia and Muslim states compete with the EU for influence.

But his public remarks have in the past risked provoking tension.

The 12m Roma people in Europe "could be a target for radicalisation" Trocsanyi told EU justice ministers at a meeting in Brussels in 2015, according to Hungary's spokesperson at the time.

But his "hypothesis" had no grounds in research on why the Roman Catholic minority would embrace radical Islam.

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