Ursula von der Leyen’s balancing act for the next European Commission will face a harsh reality at the hearings of the European Parliament, especially for nominees from the region.
The hearings of Commissioners-designate are scheduled to take place between 30 September and 8 October in Brussels. After President-elect of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen unveiled her chosen team of commissioners for the next five years, each of the designates will face a hearing by the committees of the European Parliament (EP) responsible for the portfolio.
Although the EP can give each individual nominee a tough vetting process, in the plenary meeting it can only approve the team in its entirety through a majority of votes cast, before the European Council appoints the new European Commission. As a consequence, the EP often exerts indirect pressure on designates deemed unsuitable or unwanted for the position of commissioner.
Before the EP plenary vote in Strasbourg on 23 October, we can expect parliamentary committees to draw battle lines with Ursula von der Leyen and her team, to weed out any problematic nominations.
In 2014, the EP gave a strong rebuke against Slovenia’s nominee (and a former prime minister) Alenka Bratušek even though she was picked by Jean-Claude Juncker to become one of his vice-presidents. Bratušek was perceived to be unqualified to serve as a commissioner by the EP’s environment and energy committees. In a less outright rejection, but after pressure by the EU’s directly elected body, Juncker decided to strip Hungary’s commissioner Tibor Navracsics of the oversight of EU citizens’ rights.
A mixed picture
For the Central and East European (CEE) region there are a number of positive signals in the team unveiled by Ursula von der Leyen some weeks ago. Croatian politician Dubravka Šuica was nominated for the position of Vice-President with the Democracy and Demography portfolio. While some MEPs have perceived the reference to demographics as a clear concession to Viktor Orbán, it underlines greater comprehension for countries that face population decline in both present and future.
The choice for Maria Gabriel from Bulgaria as a Commissioner with the portfolio for Innovation and Youth, also covering education and research, should be welcomed as an important step for the region. The CEE region still lags behind in these areas, which will undoubtedly be a point of attention at the upcoming negotiations for the Multi-Annual Financial Framework. Given Gabriel’s experience as an MEP from 2009 to 2017 and her participation in the Juncker Commission – replacing Kristalina Georgieva – she faces no major obstacles to her appointment.
Czech nomination Věra Jourová might turn out to be an ideal designate for the rule of law portfolio. As Vice-President-designate for Values and Transparency she will have to promote and defend EU rights and principles against democratic backsliding in member states. While Frans Timmermans’ replacement appears to be a compromise figure directed at the Visegrad countries, Jourová (currently Commissioner for Justice) has not minced her words when speaking about corruption and political inference in judicial systems.
The picture becomes muddled, however, in light of other nominations from the region. Polish candidate Janusz Wojciechowski is under investigation of the European Anti-fraud Office for irregularities regarding the reimbursement of travel costs. This scrutiny by an EU-mandated body may present a genuine hurdle to his nomination for the Agriculture portfolio.
Wojciechowski is already the second candidate for Poland, after Krzysztof Szczerski withdrew his bid to join von der Leyen’s team. He may also not survive the nomination process.
The name of László Trócsányi as a candidate will raise a few eyebrows and meet some resistance in Brussels. The Commissioner-designate for Enlargement and Neighbourhood has a worrisome track record with regard to justice and the neighbouring countries. Trócsányi signed off asylum for the convicted politician Nikola Gruevski of North Macedonia and in another case helped arms dealers escape to Russia. Just as in 2014, there might be pressure from the EP to change the portfolio or even drop his candidacy altogether.
Up for grabs
The EP may also take issue with Romanian MEP Rovana Plumb, who was announced as candidate for the Transport portfolio. Although she escaped investigation regarding a corruption case in 2017, the parliamentary committee in charge of Plumb’s portfolio may question whether her “independence is beyond doubt” as prescribed in the Treaty on European Union.
In comparison to other parts of Europe, CEE appears to match a pattern of commissioners-designate who are far from unblemished in their careers at the national and European level.
The French nominee for the Internal Market portfolio, Sylvie Goulard, was questioned recently by the French anti-corruption authorities. Also the Belgian nominee for the Justice portfolio, Didier Reynders, is the subject of a preliminary investigation in his home country.
Last July, Ursula von der Leyen was approved only by a slim majority in the EP as the President of the European Commission. While her 27-strong team has managed to preserve a balance in terms of gender, political families and geography – with several vice-presidents for the CEE region – the new President still has an uphill battle to face in the next month.
Some countries may sacrifice their candidate in other to save a major portfolio or obtain a better one.
Budapest considers the Neighbourhood portfolio as crucial to advance partnerships with the Western Balkans but also further its illiberal agenda there. In a different fashion, Poland might drop its nomination for Agriculture if it could obtain the Energy or Infrastructure portfolio in return.
The three hour interrogations that are set to start from 30 September will only be the point of departure for an abundance of political wrangling to take place in the corridors of the European Parliament. Both personalities and portfolios are still up for grabs. It is unlikely the nominated Commission will survive the process unscathed.