MEPs bury the hatchet on new Commission

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MEPs appear to have abandoned the quest for commissoners’ scalps as political groups in the European Parliament are no longer asking for portfolio reshuffles, new auditions or the replacement of commissioners-designate, a roundup of opinions in Strasbourg revealed yesterday (20 January).

In series of off-the record conversations, MEPs told EURACTIV that the mood in Parliament had changed dramatically since EPP-affiliated Bulgarian Commissioner-designate Rumiana Jeleva’s withdrawal from the race on Tuesday (19 January) and the Bulgarian government’s subsequent nomination of a new candidate with “good credentials” (see ‘Background’). 

The first to note the difference were MEPs from the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, who rushed to congratulate their group president, Martin Schulz, after Jeleva’s withdrawal. 

Indeed, the removal of a candidate from an opponent’s ranks following the hearings is seen in many quarters as a political victory. 

Nevertheless, Schulz reportedly told his fellow S&D MEPs that this was “enough”, and expressed hope that no new attacks would be launched. 

No more attacks on commissioners

A similar view was expressed by European People’s Party (EPP) group chair Joseph Daul, who dramatically told journalists in Strasbourg that he hoped the new Bulgarian candidate would not be overwhelmed by accusations “before she arrives in Brussels”. 

However, this seems highly unlikely. Georgieva, at present a World Bank vice-president, has a “clean” CV which “speaks for itself,” according to Bulgarian MEPs across party lines. She is due to meet European Commission President José Manuel Barroso today (21 January), for a first introduction and information session on her portfolio attribution. Apparently, Georgieva is expected to be entrusted Jeleva’s portfolio (International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response). 

For her part, Jeleva has been relieved of her functions as foreign affairs minister. She is replaced in the role by 1972-born Nickolay Mladenov, who has been defence minister for the last six months and served as an EPP-affiliated MEP between 2007 and 2009.

The names of “problematic” commissioners had been frequently mentioned in the last few days. Among these are Dutch Commissioner-designate for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes and her Finnish colleague Olli Rehn, responsible for economic and monetary affairs, who are both liberals. Both have a good rating as members of the present Barroso team. However, they failed to convince MEPs of their in-depth knowledge on issues related to their new fields of responsibility. 

Lithuanian EPP-affiliated Commissioner-designate Algirdas Šemeta, who briefly appeared in the Barroso I team, and has now been assigned to taxation and the customs union, audit and anti-fraud, also failed to impress at his hearing, as did his Hungarian socialist colleague László Andor, who was assigned employment, social affairs and inclusion. 

Another socialist, Maroš Šef?ovi?, who was assigned inter-institutional relations and administration, stanfs accused by the EPP of anti-Gypsyism, claims to which he strongly objected (EURACTIV 19/01/10). 

Even Catherine Ashton, who is set be the Union’s first High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, was considered a “problematic” case, as some of her answers were seen as unconvincing or revealed lack of knowledge of her field. 

Rumours in previous days had foreseen a substantial change of portfolio attributions, or the downgrading of commissioners who failed to impress, including stripping some of their Commission vice-president title. 

However, such ambitions were seen more as tit-for-tat exchanges between political groups, rather than as genuine attempts to improve the division of responsibilities in the Barroso II team. 

EPP sources told EURACTIV on Wednesday (20 January) that no matter what the concerns were, the major groups had now agreed to push for a vote on 9 February, without any new auditions or portfolio reshuffles. 

They confirmed that Šef?ovi?, seen as the EPP’s preferred target lately, had succeeded in clearing his name. Speaking to journalists whom he treated to wine and sandwiches to mark the new year, EPP group chair Joseph Daul appeared relaxed and confident that the new Commission would be in place by 9 February. 

Portfolio overlap 

The auditions revealed that the portfolio attributions of Barroso had led to an unprecedented overlap of responsibilities, seen as a risk factor in the following months and years. 

Indeed, Denmark’s Connie Hedegaard, responsible for climate change, may find it difficult to share responsibilities with Slovenia’s Janez Poto?nik, responsible for environment, or even with Germany’s Günther Oettinger, responsible for energy. 

The same goes for Sweden’s Cecilia Malmström, responsible for home affairs, Viviane Reding, commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, and László Andor, who among other attributions is responsible for anti-discrimination. 

Similarly, the development commissioner, Latvia’s Andris Piebalgs, appears to share common ground with the Bulgarian commissioner, responsible for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response. Both, together with the Czech Stefan Füle, responsible for enlargement and neighbourhood policy, have to answer to Catherine Ashton. This is a new form of hierarchy and another risk factor, argued MEPs. 

Another aspect which became evident during the hearings is that Ashton will strongly depend on cooperation with Šef?ovi?, responsible for recruitment to the European External Action Service, which is expected to be put in place in the coming months. 

The overlapping portfolios signal Barroso’s strategy of being the sole arbiter and gaining a precious early advantage for future turf wars, insiders told this website. Some “problematic” commissioners, such as Rehn or Kroes, are in fact among the people he feels closest to. 

By assigning them unfamiliar responsibilities, Barroso makes these people more dependent on him and thus consolidates his inner circle, pundits said. 

Based on candidacies submitted by each member country, last November 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 was a three-hour Q&A session with each candidate in the parliamentary committee(s) responsible for the portfolio concerned. In their evaluation, MEPs took into account the general competences of the commissioners-designate, their European commitment and personal independence. The auditions ended on 19 January. 

However, as Bulgarian Commissioner-designate Rumiana Jeleva (International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response) was forced to withdraw following a questionable performance and accusations of various kinds (EURACTIV 16/12/0913/01/1015/01/10), the new Bulgarian nominee, Kristalina Georgieva, will be auditioned on 3 February. 

In a minor setback, the commissioner-designate for the 'Digital Agenda' portfolio, Neelie Kroes, appeared before the group coordinators of the European Parliament's industry, research and enterprise committee for a second time on 19 January, passing the second test successfully (EURACTIV 20/01/10). 

The European Parliament will vote on the entire college of commissioners on 9 February in Strasbourg. 

In the past too, countries have been forced to change their nominees in order to prevent the entire Commission from being voted down. In 2004, Italian Commissioner-designate Rocco Buttiglione was rejected and Barroso was forced to present a reshuffled Commission to prevent a crisis. 

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