Malmström steady but ‘lacking ambition’ in hearing

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Swedish Commissioner-designate for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström gave a steady account to the European Parliament in a confirmation hearing yesterday (19 January), but was accused by some MEPs of lacking ambition in her proposals.

Malmström, a former liberal MEP who currently serves as Europe minister in Sweden’s centre-right coalition government, took centre stage during the Swedish EU Presidency in the second half of 2009. 

Responding to questions in Swedish, English, French and Spanish, Malmström gave an impression of competence and determination without going into detail on any significant policy prescriptions – a sensible plan, Swedish media argued, given the difficult and politically-sensitive brief she has been assigned. 

Her short answers were also prescribed by the format of the hearing, which limited answers to one or two minutes maximum. 

The new home affairs portfolio will deal with contentious EU issues such as migration and border control, asylum and refugees, security and anti-terrorism, and Malmström would need to tread a fine line between security on the one hand, and respect for human rights on the other, leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter said. 

Most questions for the commissioner-designate centred on asylum and immigration, and she outlined her ambition to build a comprehensive common area of asylum and migration which genuinely projects the EU’s self-proclaimed values of solidarity and respect for human rights. 

“We must focus on our duty to protect those who need it,” she said, continuing the track record she built as a liberal MEP of being outspoken on human rights issues. 

She also emphasised the need to improve co-operation between law enforcement authorities, notably telling Italian MEPs that she favoured a system allowing cross-border confiscation of mafia assets. 

On migration, she pledged to strengthen Frontex, the EU agency for external border security, providing it with its own equipment and infrastructure to deal with the thousands of migrants seeking to enter Europe illegally, notably via the Mediterranean. 

Security plans lack ambition, say MEPs 

In a brief demonstration of the battles that await her in this complex and politically-charged brief, Malmström was accused by German centre-right MEP Manfred Weber of being too vague and “evasive” on security issues. 

Weber said Malmström had made a “convincing appearance” but told the Swede in her hearing that he would have liked to see more ambition in her draft plans for this area, notably on issues such as cooperation between anti-terrorism authorities, police cooperation and the fight against organised crime. 

Malmström responded vigorously, claiming that she would not be the bad cop to Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s good cop. She argued that the EU’s internal security strategy would give her both a roadmap and tools to work more on these issues. 

“On the whole, Ms. Malmström has our support. But she will need to come forward with concrete proposals very soon,” Weber and other centre-right home affairs MEPs said after the hearing. 

Finally, the Swedish commissioner-designate backed the controversial SWIFT agreement, which gives US authorities access to EU citizens’ banking data under anti-terrorism legislation. This, too, is likely to place her on a collision course with MEPs, who are against SWIFT and intend to exercise their new Lisbon Treaty powers in blocking a new EU-US agreement later this year. 

In her personal blogCecilia Malmström  said she was pleased with her hearing, even going as far as to say it had been a "fun" three hours overall.

"A majority of the questions focused on asylum and illegal immigration, as this is the area where the greatest differences exist between the European Parliament groups and member states," she noted.

However, while she acknowledged that "there will be those who view me as too soft on asylum issues and who primarily view migration as a security issue," she countered that "this is not a world view I can subscribe to. The EU has a responsiblity to protect those who really need it".

She concluded that the Stockholm Programme contained 200 separate policy areas where the Commission would need to table proposals, thus ensuring "there will be plenty to do".

Centre-right MEPs Manfred Weber and Simon Busuttil criticised the fact that while Malmström put strong emphasis on fundamental rights, she only marginally referred to measures intended to enhance the security of Europe's citizens. "Ms. Malmström must internalise the fact that there will be a separate portfolio of Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship and that her task will be to deal closely with aspects of internal security. It will take some time until she is associated with Europe's security," they said. 

As part of his successful reappointment campaign as Commission president, José Manuel Barroso pledged to split the existing Justice and Home Affairs portfolio into two new positions: one commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, and another for home affairs. 

Luxembourg's outgoing Commissioner for Information Society Viviane Reding was proposed for the justice, fundamental rights and citizenship job, and performed well in her hearing before the European Parliament in January 2010 (EURACTIV 13/01/10). 

In December 2009, the EU adopted the Stockholm Programme, which sets out a blueprint for political action in the area of justice and home affairs for the coming five-year period (EURACTIV 14/12/09). 

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