22nd Feb 2020

Role of commission vice-presidents unclear after week of hearings

  • Former Finnish Prime Minister Katainen (in the middle) is one of the seven Vice-Presidents (Photo: Finnish government)

After the first week of EU commissioner auditions, 21 of the 27 have been grilled by MEPs, leaving five struggling - but how the new college will really function is only set to be revealed next week.

Packing in five three-hour-long hearings a day, the European Parliament put the team of commission president Jean-Claude Juncker through its paces, probing for weak policy knowledge and sounding out European commitment.

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Most of the commissioners made it through, including those with some major portfolios, such as Cecilia Malmstrom (trade), Margrethe Verstager (competition) and Elzbieta Bienkowska (internal market).

But five have still not being given the green-light amid political wrangling between the two biggest groups in the European Parliament.

Spain's Miguel Canete (energy and climate) is having his financial declaration scrutinised further; the UK's Jonathan Hill will go through another hearing to flesh out the answers he gave on financial services; while the commissioners from Hungary, the Czech Republic, and France have all been given extra written questions.

Of the entire week, Canete and Frenchman Pierre Moscovici's (economc affairs) hearings were the rowdiest.

The Spaniard was repeatedly asked by left-wing deputies about family ties to oil companies, while the French politician was asked over and again about his country's failure to fall into line with EU budget rules.

The centre-right EPP has indicated that if Canete is toppled then its members will seek to get the centre-left Moscovici ditched leaving a political stand-off between the two sides.

By contrast several of the would-be commissioners sailed relatively easily through their hearings, including Denmark's Vestager, Belgium's Marianne Thyssen (employment) and farm commissioner Phil Hogan (Ireland).

But while the hearings threw up some interesting personal details (Moscovici's Polish-Romanian heritage, Malmstrom's student-exchange past, Vestager's love of chocolate, Lord Hill's fondness for author Joseph Conrad, and the Czech Vera Jourova's jail time), they did little to illuminate how the new two-tier commission envisaged by Juncker will work.

Under the proposed system, the seven vice-presidents in the team have more powers than their colleagues, having the final say on any laws that should be proposed by the EU.

They are in charge of thematic areas, so that Finland's Jyrki Katainen, in charge of jobs and growth, will be overseeing Moscovici, on economic affairs. The Frenchman will also have someone else looking over his shoulder in the shape of Latvia's Valdis Dombrovskis, vice-president for the euro.


But while Juncker has indicated he sees commissioners as subordinate to vice-presidents, the 'ordinary' commissioners are less inclined to think this way.

"There is no 'super-commissioner', no 'second tier' of commissioners. We are all equal, a team formed to pull in the same direction," said Moscovici during his hearing.

Employment commissioner Marianne Thyssen also said the commissioners will work as a "team" and none will have a veto.

Even Kristalina Georgieva, who will be a vice-president in charge of the EU budget, was not very clear on the hierarchy during her hearing. Asked on how it should function, she said: "We are to respect each other's mandates".

Next week, beginning Monday, the remaining six vice-presidents will have their turn before MEPs.

Deputies are expected to focus on teasing out how the system will work in practice. Of particular interest will be the hearing of Frans Timmermans, who is 'first' vice president (in charge of institutional relations and cutting red tape) and is supposed to Juncker's right-hand man.

Timmermans will, in an unprecedented move, face all the political groups on Tuesday, the last official day of the hearings, as his roaming role touches all departments in the commission.

While the details remain unclear, the UK's Lord Hill gave one of the most pragmatic answers on how it is likely to function.

"A lot will depend on the personal relations that exist between people", he said.


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