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10th Aug 2022

MEPs to test skills and spirit of new commissioners

  • The EU parliament: the hearings will take place between Monday and Friday this week and on the first two days of next week (Photo: EUobserver)

Brussels politics swings back into action on Monday (11 January) as MEPs begin the hearings of the European Commissioner nominees, kicking off with the highly anticipated questioning of the European Union's new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

The 26 commissioners will come before the parliamentary committees that are most relevant to their portfolio for a three-hour grilling on their competency for the job as well as their independence and whether they are sufficiently committed to the EU.

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The beginning of the hearing process comes after weeks of discussion and a certain sense of limbo in the EU capital as officials, lobbyists, consultants and journalists wait for the new commission to be fully established following two and a half months of a caretaker executive since the last commission's mandate ran out on 1 November.

The delay was due to complications with the EU's new institutional rules, known as the Lisbon Treaty, which finally went into force on 1 December.

The treaty delays have meant, however, that the next batch of commissioners - 13 of them are returning - have had plenty of time to swot up on the areas they will be in charge of overseeing and legislating on for the next five years.

This translated into intense briefings with the expert staff that are to serve under them as well as more general lessons about what to expect from MEPs and where the pitfalls during the hearings might lie.

"They are studying very, very hard," a commission spokesperson said Friday (8 January), adding: "Especially on substance and also on the methods."

This week will see the bulk of the commissioners - 22 - undergo the procedure, with much of the interest set to focus on Ms Ashton, the French nominee, Michel Barnier, and the Bulgarian, Rumiana Jeleva.

Britain's Ms Ashton has been nominated to one of the most high profile positions in the EU - foreign policy chief in charge of a thousands-strong diplomatic service and the bloc's representative for external relations. MEPs are expected to focus on her lack of experience in diplomacy as well as her plans for creating the new service.

Nominated for the internal market and financial services dossier, Mr Barnier's hearing is likely to be thoroughly scrutinised by the British press, looking to see if the Frenchman gives any sign of wanting to impose regulatory shackles on the City of London. The City's nervousness in this area was prompted by gloating by French president Nicolas Sarkozy after he succeeded in securing one of the top economic porfolios for his man.

Bulgaria's Rumiana Jeleva may be questioned about her husband's alleged connections with organised crime, while the Communist past of the Czech Republic's Stefan Fuele may also come under scrutiny.

In terms of procedure, each committee will prepare a formal assessment of the commissioner hearing, which will be used by the political groups to decide their positions before a vote on the entire commission on 26 January.

Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso's careful distribution of portfolios (in which each of the three main political groups in the European Parliament have commissioners with weighty jobs), as well as the political balance of power between left and right in the parliament, has contributed to a toning down of rhetoric by MEPs on what they expect from the hearings.

Surprises cannot be excluded, however.

Even though, technically, deputies cannot veto any one candidate, in 2004, MEPs upset the apple cart when they forced an Italian nominee to be withdrawn because of his anti-gay views, while the Hungarian candidate at the time, originally down for energy, was moved to the tax portfolio, after questioning revealed his lack of knowledge on energy.

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