Tuesday

14th Jul 2020

Those tricky commissioner candidates in full

Now that EU commission president-elect Ursula von der Leyen has unveiled her commissioner nominees, put forward by the member states, MEPs are gearing up for hearings to grill them.

The commissioners-designates will appear before parliamentary committees according to their fields of responsibility, and MEPs will evaluate their political and professional performance.

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A negative assessment can prompt the withdrawal of a candidate, or a reshuffling of portfolios, as the entire commission needs to be approved by the parliament by a single vote.

Hearings are set to begin later this month.

Hungary's candidate, Laszlo Trocsanyi, a former justice minister, is one of the main problematic candidates for von der Leyen, who put him up for the enlargement portfolio.

Trocsanyi oversaw legislation in the last four years that was challenged by the Juncker commission at the EU's top court for breaking EU rules.

These included measures that criminalise NGOs providing legal assistance to asylum seekers, the amendments to the higher education law that in the end forced out the Central European University from Budapest, and the bill on introducing administrative courts, which would deal with corruption cases and raised concerns that they would be used by the government to weaken the rule of law.

The administrative courts' bill has been put on hold as Hungary's ruling Fidesz party was suspended in the European People's Party (EPP).

Trocsanyi's nomination is a win for prime minister Viktor Orban. The enlargement portfolio is something his government has already sought five years ago.

As enlargement commissioner, Trocsanyi would be tasked with checking if aspiring member states' rule of law is up to EU standards.

But many in the European Parliament, which a year ago triggered the Article 7 sanctions procedure against Hungary, think Trocsanyi did not uphold EU standards on rule of law in his own country.

"It is very concerning to see the Hungarian nominee, Laszlo Trocsanyi, who as Justice minister played an active role in undermining the rule of law nominated to the body which is charged with protecting the EU treaties and promoting European values," Green co-cahir Ska Keller said in a statement.

A recent report by one of Hungary's independent investigative sites also revealed that with Trocsanyi's approval, the country extradited two Russian arms-dealers to Russia, and not the US, even though US and Hungarian officials worked together to capture the suspected dealers.

"Laszlo Trocsanyi is an internationally recognised expert. Many years of diplomatic experience make him fully qualified to meet the responsibilities of one of the most important posts in the commission," Orban's Fidesz party said in a statement of the candidate, who had previously served as ambassador in Belgium and France.

Von der Leyen is keen to relaunch the commission's relationship with central and eastern Europe, including Budapest.

She defended her decision at the press conference on Tuesday, saying Hungary's objectives "are clear regarding the integration of the Western Balkans, which are in line with the those of the new European Commission".

Hungary's government has been building strong ties in the Western Balkans, but it is not without controversy.

Businessmen close to Orban, and the prime minister himself, had been building political alliances and business deals in media, construction and banking in recent years.

Orban's government also welcomed the convicted ex-prime minister of Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski in Hungary, while refusing asylum seekers from the Middle East and central Asia.

And some of the Balkan leaders, such as Serbia's president Alexander Vucic, also look at Orban as a model on how to rein in the media.

Hungary also has a tricky relationship with its eastern neighbour, Ukraine, and has blocked meetings of the NATO-Ukraine commission.

The Greens and the Socialist and Democrats in the parliament are keen to take on Trocsanyi.

"Dear von der Leyen, it's weird that the person who demolished the rule of law in Hungary will be responsible for the rule of law in the acceding countries... It's a joke," a Hungarian opposition Socialist MEP tweeted.

Liberals are less than united in their enthusiasm, as their group leader Dacian Ciolos sees the group as part of the coalition behind von der leyen, and is also keeping an eye on Romanian politics for a possible return.

Other troubles

Janusz Wojciechowski, the Polish candidate for the agriculture portfolio, can also expect some heat during the parliamentary hearings.

The EU's anti-fraud agency last Friday said they are investigating the former MEP over concerns of "irregularities regarding the reimbursement of travel costs."

"Recent allegations about an OLAF investigation on the Polish pick, Janusz Wojciechowski, must be addressed," Keller said.

Wojciechowski admitted that he reimbursed the European Parliament €11,250 after realising he had not included some of the documents required to justify his transport costs for 2009-2011, AFP reported. He said there had been "an administrative error" and said he provided OLAF "with a full explanation."

Wojciechowski was also a member of the European Court of Auditors since 2016, despite some resistance in the European Parliament.

Although Wojciechowski was not that exposed politically in the recent judicial measures taken by the Polish Law and Justice government, which triggered the Article 7 sanctions procedure by the commission, concerns over the Polish rule of law could also shed an unfavourable light on him.

Romania's candidate, Rovana Plumb, is an MEP from the ruling PSD party. She had been loyal to former PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, who is in jail over a corruption case and Romania's anti-corruption agency (DNA) opened another case against him on EU funds.

As former EU funds minister, she herself was a suspect in 2017 in a case by DNA but avoided investigation because MPs voted to keep her immunity.

Plumb could also face heavy criticism from the centre-right MEPs of the European People's Party, who are keen to show that not only their member, Fidesz, has a rule of law issue.

A similar cloud of criticism is likely to hover over the head of European commissioner-designate Sylvie Goulard, the French liberal and Macron ally, who on Tuesday was summoned by the police over alleged misuse of EU funds.

The affair links back to her time as MEP where she was required to return €45,000 to the European parliament. The amount corresponded to the salary of one her assistants, who was no longer working for her.

Hungary tops EU anti-fraud investigation list

In its annual report, the EU's anti-fraud agency said it concluded nine investigations into Hungary and found irregularities in seven cases. In total, the agency recommended the recovery of €371m EU-wide.

Central European leaders demand Balkan EU accession

Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have demanded to open accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania this year, as Hungary's man prepares to take over the enlargement portfolio.

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