Parliament leaves Juncker no choice but to reshuffle his team

Jean-Claude Juncker. Brussels, 15 July. [European Parliament/Flickr]

The formation of a new EU executive hit a fresh snag yesterday (6 October) when a parliamentary committee rejected the Hungarian nominated to run Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship due to his record in a government accused of attacking civil rights.

The committee voted to accept Tibor Navracsics in another role on the European Commission, but asked its incoming president, Jean-Claude Juncker, not to assign him the Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship portfolio that Juncker had originally proposed.

After a handful of the 27 nominees failed to secure immediate legislative approval last week, Navracsics was the first to suffer outright rejection. With confirmation hearings due to wind up on Tuesday, his fate may now depend on a package of compromises Juncker may have to offer to unblock a process that has become snarled in party rivalries in parliament.

“First defeat for Juncker!” tweeted Spanish Green Ernest Maragall, saying the culture and education committee voted 14-12 against the Hungarian taking the post he was offered.

“Both Mr. Navracsics and also Mr. Juncker must understand that there can be no question of giving a portfolio focused on values to someone who has belonged to a Hungarian government that has been indifferent, if not opposed, to fundamental European values,” said German Social Democrat Petra Kammerevert.

Navracsics presented himself at a hearing last week as the man who negotiated with the EU to amend laws enacted while he was justice minister under premier Viktor Orbán. EU neighbours accused Orbán of curbing minority rights and media, judicial and educational freedoms. In follow-up written testimony, Navracsics sought to distance himself from Orbán, voicing “regret”.

>> Read: Navracsics sticks to script

Navracsics’s centre-right allies were pushing for him to retain the bulk of his portfolio, shorn of responsibility for “citizenship” – broadly civil rights. But opponents called for him to be moved to an entirely different brief. That could push Juncker into an awkward reshuffle if his team is to win confirmation en bloc. It is scheduled to take office on 1 November.

Consensus breakdown

Smaller parties in a European Parliament to which voters returned dozens of new, Eurosceptic members at an election in May, have criticised what they see as a “grand coalition” between Juncker’s centre-left EPP and the mainstream centre-left S&D group driving through a Commission line-up that suits them.

A breakdown in that left-right consensus during the first week of hearings last week, however, has left several key posts still uncertain. Britain’s Jonathan Hill faces an unusual repeat hearing at 1 pm today to overcome reservations on his suitability to oversee the bloc’s financial sector.

He sought last week to defend his ability as a conservative lobbyist from a non-eurozone state that has a major financial services industry to manage moves to banking and capital markets union impartially. But though he charmed many lawmakers with his wit, he left many doubting his grasp of key issues for the euro.

Britain’s Conservatives quit the EPP five years ago, leaving Hill without the protection of one of the main parliamentary groups. However, concern not to alienate Britain after Prime Minister David Cameron offered voters a referendum on leaving the EU may limit any push to deprive Hill of an important post.

French Socialist Pierre Moscovici must deliver a second set of written answers to written questions by lunchtime after coming under fire from the right and Germany over his ability to impose euro zone budget discipline on a deficit-running Paris government in which he was finance minister until this year.

Greens and the left objected to Spanish conservative Miguel Arias Cañete taking a combined energy and climate change brief, citing his family interests in the oil industry. However, a clean bill of health on Monday, in a legal review of his declaration of interests may help him now secure a majority.

>> Read: Cañete’s hearing spells trouble for Juncker

Also in trouble are two nominees from the centrist bloc in parliament, Czech V?ra Jourová at Justice and, after a lacklustre hearing yesterday, the former Slovenian premier Alenka Bratušek, Juncker’s proposed Vice-President for Energy Union.

>> Read: Jourová could be held hostage, Czech MEPs say

>> Read: Bratušek’s poor showing adds to Juncker’s worries

Aside from Hill’s “resit”, the final hearings on Tuesday will involve Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish conservative Juncker has proposed as vice president for economic issues to oversee Moscovici among others, and former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, nominated as Juncker’s second-in-command.

Party political bargaining on the executive team, complicated by the interests of the 28 EU member states which each are entitled to a commissioner, may take some time to resolve. Juncker can switch nominees to different jobs – though that may require further hearing by parliamentary committees.

He can also ask countries to put forward a new candidate if one meets stiffer resistance. Bratušek may be vulnerable, as she put her own name forward while interim prime minister after losing an election. Her successor in Ljubljana has complained.

This morning, lawmakers expect Juncker to meet parliamentary speaker Martin Schulz, from the centre-left S&D group, along with the floor leaders of the EPP and S&D. However, further negotiations later in the week are likely before it is clear whether, and how, consensus is emerging on the Commission.

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

Among the new Commissioners, due to take up their posts on 1 November, are 18 former (prime) ministers. The President has announced that the new Commission will be "very political".

The new Commission must now be approved by the European Parliament, who will interview the Commissioners between 29 September and 7 October.

During these two weeks of hearings, the 27 Commissioners will be interviewed by MEPs from relevant parliamentary commissions.

The European Parliament must then accept or reject the whole team.

>> Read more: Live: public hearings of Commissioners-designate

  • 7 October: last day of the normal round of hearings of Commissioners-designate;
  • 7 October: Jonathan Hill to face another hearing;
  • 7 October: Extraordinary meeting of the Conference of Committee Chairs to evaluate the outcome of the hearings;
  • 8 to 9 October: 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 October: The Conference of Presidents meets to declare the hearings closed and finalise the evaluation;
  • 22 October: Vote in Plenary;
  • 1 November: Commission enters in office.

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