Commission Hearings: Almost There!

After two weeks of tough European Parliament confirmation hearings it seems that Juncker and his proposed team have come through relatively unscathed.

MEPs have cast their votes and only Hungary’s Tibor Navrascsic was asked to be re-assigned to another portfolio instead of Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship. Slovenia’s Alenka Bratušek, Juncker’s candidate for Energy Union, was rejected outright, with only 13 votes in favour. This humiliating defeat and significant arm-twisting by Juncker himself convinced the friendless Bratušek to withdraw from the Commission team altogether.

In her stead Slovenia nominated Violeta Bulc, its recently-appointed Deputy Prime Minister. While such a swift replacement nomination quickly fills the gap for Juncker , it has rankled the EPP and S&D, who had set their sights on Tanja Fajon, S&D Group MEP who has worked extensively on justice, civil liberties and home affairs. The fact that the EPP and S&D could so quickly agree on a new candidate is a case in point. This might well be but a small taste of the type of crossbench collaboration that is yet to come in the new EP.

With Bulc, Juncker has some reshuffling to do, as she does not have the seniority required to become Vice-President for Energy Union. Slovakia’s Šefčovič, current Commissioner for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration, has been oft mentioned in this context, much to the annoyance of the parliament’s transport committee, which was impressed by his performance for that portfolio. Other rumours suggest Oettinger, the current Commissioner for Energy who seemed decidedly unsavvy with the digital portfolio. Juncker has demonstrated that he is apt to throw in a few surprises and there several other able candidates in his team could fill this role.

All smoke, no fire

In retrospect, it’s surprising just how relatively unscathed Juncker’s proposed team has emerged. Several Commissioners-designate were facing a potential drubbing. The UK’s Lord Hill was attacked for being a former lobbyist; Commissioner designate for Energy and Climate, Spain’s Cañete was criticised for conflicts of interest and personal and family ties to the oil and gas industry, and France’s Pierre Moscovici, proposed for Economic and Financial Affairs, was criticised for not being able to put France’s financial house in order, which has repeatedly dodged the EU’s financial stability criteria, and for doubts about his independence from French domestic politics.

In the end, there was lots of smoke but very little fire, which was down to the very realpolitick horse-trading between the major parties: The S&D was keen to keep Moscovici, for which they accepted Hill and Cañete. Bratušek was the ideal victim for a bit of parliamentary teeth-baring.

The Council of Ministers will now have to validate Bulc as Commissioner-designate after which she will have to pass her parliament hearing. It is therefore highly unlikely that parliament can vote on the new Commission on 22 October as foreseen. Early December seems a more realistic starting date for the Juncker Commission.

Arne Koeppel is Head of Research at FTI Consulting Brussels.

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