EU confirmation hearings take nasty turn

Put in a difficult position by Rumiana Jeleva’s weak performance at her parliamentary hearing earlier this week, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) is threatening to counter-attack by asking for a socialist head to roll.

The EPP group said on Wednesday (13 January) that it would seek an explanation for a statement made by Slovakia’s Commissioner-designate Maroš Šef?ovi? against his country’s Roma minority back in 2005. 

“We are very worried about the statement of Mr. Maroš Šef?ovi?, which he made on 19 January 2005, when the Commission organised a conference on human rights and EU migration policies,” said József Szájer, a Hungarian MEP responsible for overseeing the commissioners’ parliamentary hearings at the EPP. 

During that meeting, Šef?ovi? expressed the view that his Roma compatriots were exploiters of the Slovak welfare system, Szájer told journalists in Brussels. 

“I don’t think that the future vice-president of the European Commission, responsible for such sensitive issues as recruitment, as equal opportunities, as gender, can have such discriminatory views on this,” the EPP representative stated, adding it was unacceptable to label any ethnic group on the basis of collective guilt. 

Maroš Šef?ovi?, a socialist from Slovakia, is currently education commissioner and has been nominated vice-president responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration in the Barroso II team (2009-2014). 

But Szájer warned the Slovak would have a rough ride when he appears in Parliament next week. “At the hearing on Monday, we will be very interested to hear what Mr. Šef?ovi?’s view is on this question, what he can answer, and we are also interested in the view of the Commission president, and whether such persons can be members of his cabinet, at a level as high as vice-president,” Szájer said. 

Asked by EURACTIV if the move was a tit-for-tat response to the socialists, who called for Bulgarian commissioner-designate Rumiana Jeleva to be ousted following her poor performance on Tuesday, Szájer admitted that “there could be a false impression” in that sense. 

Indeed, Szájer’s views appear to contradict previous EPP statements saying it was against personal attacks or “manhunts”. According to Parliament insiders, the EPP had kept Šef?ovi?’s quote “in the freezer” for when the centre-right found itself in a bad position. 

Weak evidence 

However, the accusations against Šef?ovi? do not appear to be based on solid grounds. In fact, EURACTIV discovered that the quote was not taken from an official OSCE document, but an 11-page presentation by a Roma activist, who accuses many European leaders of “anti-Gypsyism”, including several EPP personalities, such as Romanian President Traian Basescu, former EPP-affiliated Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, a high-profile MEP from the German Christian Democrat party, Doris Pack, and others. 

Those accused of anti-Gypsyism also include former European Commission Ambassador to Slovakia Eric Van der Linden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

Meanwhile, controversy continued to grow over Jeleva’s poor performance on Tuesday. 

The Parliament’s development committee, which conducted Jeleva’s hearing, has already concluded that the Bulgarian failed to answer MEPs’ questions, according to an internal document seen by Dnevnik, EURACTIV’s partner in Bulgaria. 

The assessment also notes that Jeleva had no concrete ideas about hotspots such as Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan and Gaza, and “apparently doesn’t know where some conflict zones are located”. 

EPP representative Szájer said he had no knowledge of any such assessment, adding that his group hoped that Jeleva’s assessment would include “not only unfounded allegations, but her expertise and her readiness to master this area”. 

“In normal circumstances she should have shown her competence, but she did not get fair treatment,” Szájer said. 

Commissioner-designate Maroš Šef?ovi?, nominated vice-president responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration in the Barroso II team, has already responded to the accusations, the Czech press reported late on Wednesday. 

Sefcovic told Czech agency ?TK that the conference took place five years ago and he no longer remembers what he said at the time. If he made comments that some could find offensive, then he "deeply regrets it," it was reported. 

"I have always backed any efforts to help the Romany community," Šef?ovi? is quoted as saying, adding that he had personally helped to create a special European system of subsidies from which 200 million euros are to aid Roma in Slovakia. 

Czech agency ?TK adds that its sources said that the EPP expects it to try to seek a balance of forces and reject a socialist candidate. Socialist MEPs have practically rejected two commission nominees tied to the EPP, Bulgarian candidate Rumiana Jeleva and the Lithianian one, Algirdas Šemeta, the agency adds. 

MEP Lívia Járóka (EPP, Hungary), who is also a representative of the Roma community and Member of the Civil Liberties Committee, made on 14 January statements to the Brussels press which appeared to back down from the previous day’s statements by her compatriot and party fellow József Szájer.

“Yesterday [Maroš Šef?ovi?] made comments that he deeply regrets his statement. What we like to state here is that we are not here to judge Mr. Šef?ovi?. We are here to make sure that this [treatment of Roma, rejection of discriminatory speech] is an extremely important issue in the EU. […] Besides this apology, we would like to go much further in this issue; we would like to highlight how important it is, for the vice president of the European Commission, who is going to be dealing with equal opportunities actually, to understand this issue very well and to be a very strong promoter of the European Roma strategy”.
Asked by EURACTIV whether she accepted his apologies, Járóka said that she can hardly accept them, on behalf of ten to fifteen million Roma, who in her words have been waiting for these apologies from five years ago. She however admitted that five years ago “nobody” from the media picked up this issue.
Asked if she would press for the withdrawal of Šef?ovi?, she said:
“At this stage, no. The hearing is going to take on Monday, this is where his professional merits will be judged. And I hope that he is going to show his real understanding of what he said and how his views have changed since and how he sees the future, as vice-president.”
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Based on candidacies submitted by each country, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso distributed portfolios within his new team, which will consist of 27 members, one for each member state (EURACTIV 27/11/09). 

The next step is a three-hour long Q&A session with each candidate in the parliamentary committee(s) responsible for the portfolio concerned. In their evaluation, MEPs take into account the general competences of the commissioners-designate, their European commitment and personal independence. 

The European Parliament will vote on the entire college of commissioners on 26 January. Although the Parliament cannot reject commissioners individually, it can nevertheless apply pressure for portfolios to be reshuffled. 

In some cases, countries are forced to change their nominees in order to prevent the entire Commission from being voted down. Last time in 2004, Commissioner-designate Buttiglione was rejected and Barroso was forced to present a reshuffled Commission to avoid a crisis. 

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