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24th Jul 2021

New commissioners clear 'conflict of interests' hurdle

  • With Romania's new candidate Adina Valean, the political balance of the new commission between the EPP and S&D has changed (Photo: European Parliament)

All three new commissioner-designates were given the green light by the European Parliament's legal affairs committee on Tuesday (12 November), which is responsible for checking possible conflicts of interests.

However, France's nominee Thierry Breton only narrowly passed this initial hurdle for the remaining commissioner-designates, due to concerns among MEPs about his background and future dealings with a French IT firm Atos.

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Breton is to receive the powerful internal market portfolio in the new commission, overseeing industrial policy and joint defence projects.

Breton passed by 12-11 votes, with support from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP), and the liberal Renew group.

Socialist, Green and far left MEPs wanted to address Breton with further written questions.

But MEPs also approved by unanimity the financial declarations of Romania's MEP Adina Valean, chair of the industry committee in parliament and nominee for transport commissioner.

Hungary's Oliver Varhelyi, the country's EU ambassador who is tasked with enlargement by commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen, was also given the green light without any discussion.

The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group said they were disappointed by the committee's decision to clear Breton without additional questions.

The group said Breton should be quizzed about what happened to the money Breton made from selling his shares in Atos, and how the French businessman will avoid future possible conflict of interests linked to his portfolio.

German MEP Tiemo Wolken, social democrat coordinator for the legal affairs committee said he regretted the decision.

"A candidate who was a CEO of a multinational company only a few of weeks ago will now regulate huge sectors of the European economy linked to digital issues, defence and telecommunications," Wolken said in a statement.

"We wanted to ask Thierry Breton how he intends to address this before grilling him on his competence for the role of European Commissioner for the internal market. This is important in view of his future work and in the public interest. We put the blame at the feet of conservatives and liberals for blocking this," he added.

Green German MEP, and committee vice-chair, Sergey Lagodinsky also said he would have also liked to ask further questions.

"I would have liked a written explanation how exactly he aims to deal with Atos-relevant decisions. Breton says he would keep away from it. What does that mean concretely? JURI [the legal affairs committee] majority wasn't interested. Hopefully now the relevant committees will be," he tweeted after the meeting.

French MEP Manon Aubry was also upset by Breton's easy pass. "Breton is structurally linked to private interests that could influence his decisions," she tweeted.

Breton last week pledged to recuse himself from future EU commission decisions that could impact Atos, his former company.

Shifting dynamics

MEPs will have a chance to grill Breton and the other two candidates on Thursday when they are facing their confirmation hearings.

Socialists MEPs are likely to be particularly fired up as with the change of government in Romania, there is now one less commissioner in the new executive from their party group - shifting the delicate balance in the commission.

The EPP now have 10 commissioners, including the president-elect, while socialists hold nine portfolios.

Breton, nominated by French president Emmanuel Macron - whose En Marche party sits with liberals in the parliament - has been supported by EPP lawmakers in the legal affairs committee, is now expected to be backed in the hearing by the centre-right as well.

The previous Romanian candidate, the social democrat Rovana Plumb, was rejected by MEPs in the legal affairs committee, along with Hungary's previous candidate, Laszlo Trocsanyi.

Von der Leyen now hopes to take office on 1 December - a month later than originally planned.

UK commissioner?

But the German president-elect is still missing a commissioner candidate from London for her team.

Von der Leyen sent another letter on Tuesday morning to London reminding the UK of its legal obligations under the EU treaty and a commitment it undertook under the decision to extend Article 50 to suggest a commissioner, commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant said.

As of Tuesday, the UK government had not replied to von der Leyen's letter from last week asking for a nominee, the spokeswoman added.

"The president-elect is expecting an answer very soon to this second letter, at any rate, before the end of this week," she said.

British prime minister Boris Johnson said previously he would not nominate a new commissioner. But the Brexit deadline has moved from 31 October to 31 January upon the UK's request.

However, Johnson's spokesman said on Monday (11 November) that the government would comply with EU law.

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