MEPs load their guns for EU commissioner hearings

Legislators are preparing for the confirmation hearings for EU commissioners next week. [European Parliament/flickr]

European parliament committees expressed their concerns about the structure, portfolios and competences of candidates in written questions to the 27 commissioners-designate. The queries were sent to the candidates last week as part of the approval process of the new Juncker Commission.

MEPs are now discussing possible oral questions to ask in the hearings next week.

“We have to ask the right questions and insist on obtaining the right answers,” said MEP Brando Benifei, a social democrat from Italy. “The new political nature of the Juncker-commission will be tested, and this means we shall be more political too.”

Written questions

Every European parliament committee sends three written questions to the commissioner-designate directly dealing with their area of competence. They can also send an additional two questions to commissioners, indirectly dealing with areas linked to the committee’s legislative programme.

According to the letters, one of the biggest concerns of the parliamentarians is the newly proposed structure of the Juncker Commission. MEPs expect answers on how the coordination of the work between vice-presidents and commissioners will take place in practice. 

“The new structure of the Commission is raising several question marks,” said MEP Benifei. “Not only because of the overlapping of competences among the portfolios, (and) the re-allocation of policy domains among the directorates general, but also due to the lack of clarity on what will be the working hierarchy between the president, the vice-presidents and other commissioners.” 

Other MEPs concerns focus on the specific laws commissioners will propose during their mandate, and the priorities they intend to pursue. 

In a letter to Marianne Thyssen, the Commissioner-designate for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, employment committee MEPs ask about her priorities for the next five years. They also inquire about her views on issues such as unemployment, the gender pay gap, social security rights, and the revision of the Working Time Directive.

Apart from Thyssen, the EMPL committee also sent two questions to Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, and Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President for the Euro and Social Dialogue. The parliamentarians asked Katainen and Dombrovskis how they will exercise their right to influence initiatives as only vice-presidents can bloc a commissioner’s proposal for legislation from the agenda. They were also asked to elaborate on concrete legislation they intend to publish.  

Each commissioner-designate is expected to provide written replies to every question before the hearings start in the parliament on 29 September.


Following the written interview, commissioners-designate will appear in front of parliament committees for an oral examination. Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola, from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), said this is an excellent opportunity for the parliament and the citizens to evaluate every candidate.

“The hearings have become an integral part of the parliament’s agenda, and are not a walk in the park,” Metsola said. “Commissioners-designate must prove that they are competent for the role they have been assigned to and are on top of their brief.”

MEPs will have about three hours to assess the candidate’s competence for the job. Reinhard Bütikofer, a Green MEP from Germany, said the candidates will go through “hard scrutiny of their qualifications in the committees”. He also said that in the case of Miguel Arias Cañete, commissioner-designate for Climate Action and Energy, the European Greens have “deep concerns about his qualifications and the required independence”.

Cañete is one of the candidates that will most likely face a difficult time during the hearing in the parliament. MEPs were not impressed by the sexist comments he has made in the past, neither by the shares he owned in an oil company until recently.

Benifei said these hearings are not a mere formality, and no political deal will make “certain nominations untouchable regardless of which political agreement brought those names forward”. He gave the example of Rocco Buttiglione, a 2009 commission candidate who was forced to withdraw after he told MEPs during the hearing that homosexuality is a sin.

Renate Weber, an centre-right MEP from Romania, said these hearings are more important than the previous ones because of the new structure of the commission. 

“But unless someone will be a total disaster, they will pass smoothly,” she said. 

MEPs’ oral questions

The public hearings will allow the parliamentarians to examine every candidate’s plans and priorities in the future job. MEPs intend to question their knowledge of the area the commissioners-designate are in charge of, and how they will deliver promises made by president Juncker in his campaign to become the head of the commission. 

“Let’s not forget that Juncker was elected by the European parliament on the basis of his political platform,” said Benifei, the Italian social democrat MEP. “He made ambitious promises in his program ‘A New Start for Europe’ to fix the economy, create jobs, fight youth unemployment.” 

“He promised a mid-term review of the multi-annual financial framework, to invest in infrastructural developments, to create a resilient energy union and a connected digital single market,” said Benifei. “MEPs will now check how sincere such statements are.”

In one of the questions, Benifei and Weber, both members of the employment and social affairs committee, ask whether commissioner-designate Thyssen envisages dealing with unemployment in an ageing population.

Roberta Metsola, the Maltese member who sites on the Parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs committee, expects to find out the candidate’s concrete actions on migration in the Mediterranean. 

“In particular, he will need to give answers as to what system of fairer sharing of responsibility he envisages and how best he can convince skeptical member states to step up to the plate,” she said.

Data protection and privacy online is another concern MEP Metsola would like to address to the commissioner. 

Bütikofer, the Green MEP who sits on the Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) committee, will question the commissioner’s ability to come up with “a clear alternative to the on-going austerity policy, how to strengthen competition in Europe using green innovations and bring sustainable growth”. He believes there is a big gap in this field within the new commission.

The new structure 

The new commission structure is definitely something many MEPs have questions about. Generally, the parliamentarians welcome the new working setting except that some commissioners are hierarchically superior and can veto each other’s legislation.

MEP Weber, a Romanian EPP member, believes that the commission president will have more powers than his predecessors due to the new setting and it is not a bad thing. 

“Juncker certainly enjoys the backing of the big countries and political groups,” she said. “If he will not depend so much on the support of one or two big countries, as it happened in the last two mandates, maybe we will all be better.” 

But according to Benifei, some of the working guidelines of the new commission are described too vaguely and leaves too much room for interpretation.

“We need to figure this out, and the hearings offer us the right opportunity to do so,” he said.

A special session on the structure of the new commission will take place during the conference of presidents on 9 October. As a rule, only the president of the parliament and the political group chairmen are allowed to attend this meeting.

However this time, MEPs are invited to an open encounter where the European commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans is also expected to attend for a more in depth discussion of the working methods of the new team.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission President-elect, announced on 10 September the distribution of portfolios within his team.

With 18 former ministers and prime ministers, the new Commission will be "a very political Commission", as incoming European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said presenting his new executive.

If confirmed in a Parliament vote in October, the European Commission will take office on 1 November 2014.

>> More on our topic page: New Commission

  • 18 Sept.: Questionnaires sent in English to the Commission (other languages will follow), with deadline to reply in English by 26 September at noon, and in other languages by 29 September morning
  • 22-25 Sept.: Committee on Legal Affairs meets to discuss declarations of financial interest of candidates
  • 29 Sept. to 7 Oct.: Hearings of Commissioners-designate and committee evaluation meetings; no hearings on Friday 3 October 2014 and on Monday 6 October 2014 in the morning
  • 7 Oct.: Extraordinary meeting of the Conference of Committee Chairs to evaluate the outcome of the hearings.
  • 8-9 Oct.: The Groups will meet on Wednesday 8 October in the afternoon and on Thursday 9 October in the morning in order to evaluate the hearings.
  • 9 Oct.: The Conference of Presidents meets to declare the hearings closed and finalise the evaluation
  • 22 Oct.: Vote in Plenary

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