"If you try to libel me, I feel offended," Šefčovič dramatically told his accuser, József Szájer (EPP, Hungary), at the hearing in Strasbourg. He added that Roma organisations know him and support him "better than anybody else".
During a three-hour hearing, Szájer reiterated his request (see 'Background') that Šefčovič explain why he had waited for five years to express regret over comments made five years ago, when he reportedly said that his Roma compatriots had exploited the Slovak welfare system.
The alleged statements are quoted in a paper written by Roma activist Valeriu Nicolae and are part of notes he took at a stagiare conference organised by the European Commission on 19 January 2005.
Šefčovič told MEPs he did not remember his exact words at the conference, adding that his statements had not caused controversy at the time.
"This quote [...] is five years old, consists of six words and is clearly taken out of context [...] I did not mean to offend anybody. If I offended, I really regret it," he said.
Valeriu Nicolae, who is now president of the Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities, an international NGO based in Romania, told this website that "it is unbelievable" for the European People's Party (EPP) to attack Šefčovič on the basis of a paper he once wrote.
Nicolae added that EPP leaders had made "much worse" anti-Roma statements, and singled out Hungary's EPP-affiliated party Fidesz, of which Szájer is a member, as ranking among the worst offenders.
"It is funny that Szájer attacks Šefčovič. He [Szájer] has been very tough against Slovaks," Nicolae added, speaking on the phone from Bucharest.
At length, Nicolae explained that Šefčovič had "proven that he can make things happen for Roma". Unlike other politicians, Šefčovič had managed to convince the government of Slovakia, "not an easy government," to tackle the urgent problems of the Roma minoirity, he said.
"In a country where huge problems with anti-Gypsyism, discrimination at work, in housing, education, access to health and social services persist, it was possible, thanks to Šefčovič, to put in place a project which could be a model for other countries. What Slovakia did for Roma must be done by all countries where a substantial Roma population lives," Nicolae said.
Szájer was asked by the press why he did not raise the issue of the alleged controversial statements by Šefčovič earlier, for example before his confirmation as education commissioner. The EPP vice-chair responded that he had not been in charge of parliamentary hearings at that time.
Eduard Kukan, a former foreign minister of Slovakia who is EPP-affiliated, told EurActiv that in his view Šefčovič had impressed MEPs at the hearing with his competence, adding that he expected the candidate to be confirmed as commissioner.
Asked if he expected the attacks on him to continue in the days to follow, he said "only Hungarian MEPs" were likely to continue the battle until the final vote in plenary.
MEP Andrew Duff (ALDE, UK) challenged Šefčovič over whether he would call himself a federalist. Apparently Šefčovič hesitated in his response, knowing that he would attract criticism from some MEPs if he were to admit such sympathies.
"I am a strong supporter of an ever-closer Union," he replied.
Duff also grilled him on electoral reform for European elections. Šefčovič spoke in favour of reform aimed at increasing participation in the European elections. He added that he would support transnational lists and that it might be better to have two-day elections in May instead of four day ones in June.
Several questions touched upon his future duties regarding putting in place the European External Action Service (EEAS) and reforming the process of recruitment, which he is expected to oversee.
"I have only one goal - that [the EEAS] is a big success," Šefčovič said. He said he believed a decision on the EEAS staff regulation would follow the ordinary legislative procedure, thus involving the Parliament, but noted: "The time pressures are enormous."
Gerald Häfner (Greens/EFA, DE) and Stanimir Ilchev (ALDE, BG) asked for the candidate's views on the citizens' initiative introduced by the Lisbon Treaty.
Šefčovič said he would press for progress during the Spanish EU Presidency (EurActiv 14/01/10). Regarding the admissibility of initiatives, he said he would not support the Commission intervening too early.
Šefčovič also referred to the institutions' registers of lobbyists, saying that it was "not fair" for big consultancies and law firms to be able to avoid the standards imposed on others. "If they are lobbying, they must be registered."
The Slovak commissioner-designate also expressed willingness to improve the commissioners' code of conduct.