Wojciechowski’s poor performance adds to von der Leyen’s woes

EU Commission President-designate Ursula von der Leyen (C) arrives to attend the conference of Presidents of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 19 September 2019. [Patrick Seeger/EPA/EFE]

If Polish Commission-nominee Janus Wojciechowski ultimately gets rejected by the European Parliament after his hearing on Tuesday (1 October), it will not be for political reasons, but simply because his performance was so disappointing.

Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen is already busy replacing the Romanian and Hungarian Commissioners-designate, who were rejected by the Parliament’s legal affairs committee earlier this week for issues related to conflicts of interest.

Now she may have to deal with one more rejection.

Wojciechowski also had issues with the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) over his personal finances, but he risks rejection for another reason – his overall weak performance.

“The performance of the Commissioner-designate Wojciechowski was very weak,” said Herbert Dorfmann, agriculture spokesperson for the-centre right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament.

Wojciechowski failed to provide concrete answers to many questions and some of his answers were “really strange,” Dorfmann said. The EPP group will therefore ask further clarifications before deciding its position, he added.

Indeed, Wojciechowski appeared to speak generalities and evaded tough questions on agriculture policy, pleading instead for the need of a long-term vision.

When MEPs pressed him on the ongoing reform of EU farm policy — how to make sure it remains a truly common policy that delivers for both farmers and consumers, how to make it more environmentally-friendly –, Wojciechowski only replied that he was “open to discussions” and ready to improve the legislative proposals put forward by the outgoing European Commission.

The Polish Commission nominee said and repeated that he will listen to the farmers, but MEPs weren’t impressed.

“On the CAP reform, which is on the table, he is not sure whether to go on or not. He said that he wants to change it but he did not say what he wants to change. He said he wants a long term perspective for agriculture, but we did not understand what this perspective actually is,” Dorfmann commented.

‘Second chance’

The Socialists and Democrats also expressed disappointment after the hearing.

However the group decided to give him a second chance. “We are requesting further information from the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture before we can consider the approval of his candidacy”, S&D said in a statement.

Paolo de Castro, the S&D’s coordinator in the Parliament’s Agriculture Committee, said that for the centre-left European family, the risk of re-nationalisation in the Common Agriculture Policy proposal was key.

However, he said Wojciechowski did not provide any clear strategy against this. Despite a “weak performance”, the S&D group “has decided to give him a second chance,” it said in a statement.

“We are requesting further information from the Commissioner-designate for Agriculture before we can consider the approval of his candidacy,” the S&D said.

Paolo de Castro, MEP and the S&D coordinator in the committee on Agriculture, said:

“We expected much more detailed and ambitious answers from Mr Wojciechowski today.  The risk of re-nationalisation in the Common Agriculture Policy proposal is key for us, and Mr Wojciechowski has not provided any clear strategy against this.

Members of the centrist Renew Europe Group also concluded that his performance was not satisfactory and demanded that he further elaborates his vision for future European agricultural policy – first in writing and then in a second hearing.

MEP Ulrike Müller, agriculture coordinator for Renew Europe, said: “During the hearing, the Commissioner-designate was too vague and evasive. What we need is a clear commitment to his portfolio and concrete proposals on what his agenda will look like.”

On the face of it, it may appear like MEPs have decided to adopt a tougher stance on Hungary, Romania and Poland, which all created problems for Europe with regards to the rule of law. The Parliament’s tough stance could easily be interpreted as a backlash to von der Leyen’s openings to the Visegrad countries, which was visible in the portfolio’s names and attributions.

That said, the hearings are not over yet, and some candidate from core EU countries may also come under fire, particularly France.

From what has been on display so far, it is fair to say that Poland, Hungary and Romania did not send suitable candidates. On the other hand, the Commission President-elect has the powers to reject candidates before their nominations become public.

Von der Leyen is already under fire for not having vetted Romania’s Romana Plumb and Hungary’s László Troscanyi, because their personal finance issues have been in the public domain. In theory, she could have also rejected Wojciechowski after her initial interview with him.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Based on MEPs recommendations, leaders of the Parliament’s political groups will decide on 17 October if the Assembly has received sufficient information to declare the hearing process closed.

If so, the Parliament will hold a plenary vote on 23 October, in Strasbourg, on whether to approve or reject the Commission as a whole.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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