Bulgarian commissioner-designate Rumiana Jeleva flopped at a hearing in the European Parliament yesterday (12 January), failing to counter accusations of conflict of interest and giving disappointing answers on policy issues. Her eviction from the Barroso II team could be announced later today.
Parliament members across party lines, with the exception of the European People's Party (EPP), said that Jeleva - the new commissioner-designate for humanitarian aid and crisis response - had failed during her 'job interview'.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso is expected to take a decision regarding her future today (13 January), presuming that Jeleva herself does not decide to jump ship in the meantime, MEPs told EurActiv.
Parliament sources said it was in everybody's interests to close the case swiftly, and urged Bulgaria to propose another candidate as soon as possible.
The name of Nickolay Mladenov, from the ruling centre-right GERB party, is being repeatedly mentioned. Mladenov, born in 1972, was a member of the European Parliament in 2007-2009 and is now Bulgaria's defence minister. He is known for his competence in EU affairs and excellent English.
Jeleva's poor performance apparently dealt a severe blow to the country's national pride, generating an unprecedented storm of reactions in the Bulgarian media and internet fora. Jeleva's parliamentary hearing was broadcast on national radio, reportedly on her own initiative.
Her probable eviction from the Barroso II team is also a blow to the EPP, the centre-right political group and the largest in the European Parliament, which recently elected her as vice-president of the party.
Before her appointment as commissioner-designate, Rumiana Jeleva was Bulgaria's foreign minister.
Poor performance on policy issues
Despite the modest political weight of her assigned portfolio, the parliament meeting room in Brussels was crowded from the outset, signalling a larger interest than is usual for such hearings.
Jeleva was already seen as the most problematic of the 26 commissioners-designate, mainly due to allegations of conflict of interest, for which she had failed to provide a satisfactory explanation in the run-up to the hearing (EurActiv 17/12/09 and 08/01/10).
Jeleva's modest CV also presented a particular risk. Indeed, in the event the commissioner-designate failed to show sufficient knowledge of the policy area she had been assigned to.
She responded to most questions in only general terms, pledging to work in cooperation with other commissioners and the Parliament, to visit hotspots personally, and to prepare scenarios in advance.
In response to one question, she showed her ignorance of the Gulf of Aden, a global hotspot situated between Yemen and Somalia where attacks by pirates have multiplied and Bulgarian nationals, among others, are being held hostage.
In another case, she was pressed to comment on the humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She answered that it was for a lower-ranking official to know such details, adding she was not applying for the position of director-general.
Jeleva 'taken to the slaughterhouse' by opponents
Jeleva said she was attacked by Antonia Parvanova, a Bulgarian MEP from the liberal ALDE group (NDSV party), who claimed that the aspiring commissioner had failed to give up business activities when she was a member of the European Parliament in 2007-2009.
Jeleva was the manager of a company called Global Consult until April 2009 but should have abandoned her duties when she joined the EU assembly in 2007, according to Bulgarian law.
Jeleva tried to fend off the attacks by saying that her opponent had staged a media campaign against her, sending letters to selected politicians and media that contained copies of her 2007 declaration of financial interests.
She insisted that the accusations were unfounded and urged the audience to discuss policy issues with her instead.
However, Parvanova was given the floor again by the chair of the Parliament's development committee, Eva Joly (Greens/EFA), giving her the chance to insist that the documents on financial interest showed non-compliance with Bulgarian law.
Jeleva still owned a 60% share in Global Consult, which has been sold and renamed in the meantime, again in contradiction with Bulgarian law, Parvanova claimed.
Jeleva appeared to contradict herself in her response by saying that she had anticipated the attacks. However, she was unable to indicate the amount for which she had sold her shares in the company. When asked by the press after the hearing, she said the amount was small, because in her words the firm was not engaged in any activities at all.
Joseph Daul, leader of the centre-right European People's Party group, told this website that anybody in her situation would have been unable to hold a discussion on policy, saying she was "taken to the slaughterhouse" by political opponents.
Daul said he was "disgusted" by the attacks on Jeleva, adding that as a farmer in his previous life, he had in fact "substantial professional experience of slaughterhouses".
Confusing declarations of financial interest
Among the documents circulated in Parliament are Jeleva's declarations to the Bulgarian Court of Auditors. The law requires public figures in Bulgaria to state their financial situation.
Those declarations appear confusing.
A 2009 declaration, for example, states "nothing to declare" on all accounts, stating that she owns no property and has no source of income of any kind.
A similar 2008 declaration reports "refunds" from the European Parliament for an amount of 73,000 euros, as well as shares in the Global Consult firm for an amount of 2,500 euros.
The same amount of 2,500 euros appears in the 2007 declaration, along with two apartments owned by the family. But, more curiously, it shows the acquisition of a 81- square-metre seaside villa built on 570 square metres of land in 2004 for the bargain amount of roughly 1,000 euros. A brief consultation with real estate agents reveals that villas in Bulgaria cost at least 1,000 euros per square metre, especially when they are located in prestigious areas such as the seaside.
MEPs also circulated Jeleva's financial declarations to the European Parliament. One of them, filed on 20 June 2007, says that she is the manager of the Global Consult company. Another one, filed on 14 November, says she has "nothing to declare" on all accounts, and the same goes for the years 2008 and 2009.
Strangely, none of the four declarations, which had been accepted by the European Parliament's services at the time, were signed by the MEP herself.
Asked by EurActiv to explain if an MEP could secure Parliament "refunds" for such a substantial amount, MEP Charles Goerens (Luxembourg, ALDE) said that for his part, he usually ended up with no savings made at the end of each month.
MEP Andrew Duff (UK, ALDE) told EurActiv that he had received copies of the papers accusing Jeleva of conflict of interest, but declined to comment on them, explaining that he first had to improve his Bulgarian, which "doesn't go too far".
"The Parliament does require a bit more information about her and her financial dealings. And I expect Barroso to provide that. He has accepted her, he has screened her," he insisted.
Dnevnik, EurActiv's partner in Bulgaria, quotes Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini, who says that Jeleva's performance on policy issues was very poor.
"If I was the Bulgarian government, I would nominate immediately somebody else," Sargentini said.
"Listening to Jeleva was torture for MEPs of this [Parliament] commission who deals with humanitarian issues and responses to crises for a long time," MEP Kristian Vigenin (S&D, Bulgaria), told EurActiv.
"Even putting aside the issue of conflict of interest, which she failed to address as she did not answer the questions, she is obviously completely incompetent for the proposed portfolio. Unfortunately all of Europe saw her incompetence, and, as we understand, all Bulgarian citizens who listened the debate on the national radio," Vigenin said.
MEP Ivaylo Kalfin (S&D, Bulgaria), who was the country's foreign minister before Jeleva, said that she not only failed to disprove the conflict of interest allegations made regarding her participation in a private company called Global Consult while she was an MEP in 2007-2009, but that she also failed to demonstrate any competence regarding her portfolio - humanitarian aid and crisis prevention.
"I don't feel like commenting. It was shameful. Jeleva did not do well. She spoke in bad English, and did not give good answers. She told outright lies about the conflict of interest issue," Kalfin stated on national radio, quoted by Novinite.
"I am very sorry as a Bulgarian that we saw all this happen and that we saw such a weak Bulgarian candidate," he lamented.
In his words, the most likely option, which would also be best for Bulgaria now, would be if the coordinators of the party groups in the Parliament's development committee, decided to give Jeleva additional time to clear out all suspicions.
Kalfin did not rule out the possibility of the Parliament recommending Barroso to change the proposed new European Commission.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov took the side of his candidate for commissioner and said on Wednesday that Jeleva had performed well at the hearing, the Vseki den website reported.
Borissov blamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the ALDE-affiliated NDSV party of former Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Cobourg Gotha for staging an attack against her in the European Parliament. Borissov also said that he has had several "spare solutions" for candidate commissioners, but refused to reveal whether he envisaged a 'Plan B', the website writes.
"I want Mrs. Jeleva's legal situation clarified as soon as possible, so that the Bulgarian commissioner-designate can be judged on her merits", said French MEP Joseph Daul, chairman of the European People's Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament.
Daul deplored the "unfounded allegations and personal attacks that dominated Mrs Jeleva's hearing".
"My group is, at least as much as the others, committed to the principles of transparency and honesty; naturally it expects the commissioners to be above reproach. But it is fiercely opposed to all unfounded accusations," he continued.
"I would like certain political groups to stop acting in an irresponsible and partial manner during these hearings."
"The European Parliament must be able to work in partnership with a strong and engaged Commission, so that solutions can be found for Europeans' concerns. This is the EPP group's approach to these hearings," concluded Daul.
Austrian MEP Hannes Swoboda (S&D vice-president responsible for the hearings) said Jeleva did not convince centre-left MEPs of her knowledge of the portfolio.
"Her answers were not relevant. The criteria in evaluating candidates are competency, specific knowledge of their future portfolio and a clean financial past. She even denied any suggestion of impropriety. Jeleva was not convincing," Swoboda said.
"We will ask the legal services of the European Parliament to check her financial declaration. Until then no decision will be taken," he stated.
Dutch MEP Thijs Berman (S&D coordinator on the Parliament's development committee) criticised the Commission president's decision to attribute portfolios with similar scope. Development was attributed to Latvia's Andris Piebalgs, while Jeleva holds similar responsibilities for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response. If approved, both will work under EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton.
"We are faced with a huge organisational mess. Development policy is being dismembered under the torture of the division of portfolios between too many European commissioners. Instead of creating a strong and unified role of the EU in poverty reduction, Mr. Barroso persists in perpetuating our divisions," Berman stated.