European Affairs

Juncker’s New Commission Team Faces the European Parliament     Print Email
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 By Brian Beary, U.S. Correspondent, Europolitics

brianbeary-august2011On 10 September, President Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled his team of 28, one for each member state of the European Union. With his promise to create a ‘more political, less technocratic’ Commission, supporters of the EU executive are hopeful that Juncker will restore the Commission’s lustre and emulate the visionary leadership of Jacques Delors, who served as European Commission President from 1984 to 1995.


Ironically, while Juncker himself is a veteran of the Council, the arm of the EU that represents national governments, the European Parliament views his appointment as its victory. That is because MEPs have succeeded in enshrining a new, more grassroots-based process that they devised for selecting the Commission President. This process marks a break from past procedure where the President was picked by member state leaders at closed-door summits.

Buoyed by a change in the EU treaty that forces the Council to “take account of” the European Parliament elections, Parliament crafted the so-called spitzencandidat system. Spitzencandidat is a German word (“top candidate”) referring in this case to the candidate placed at the top of a party list in parliamentary elections. In the run-up to the May 2014 European elections, Parliament convinced the largest pan-European political groups to each select a spitzencandidat for the top Commission job.

The center-right European Peoples Party (EPP) selected Juncker, the Luxembourg prime minister from 1995-2013, who beat out France’s Michel Barnier, EU internal market commissioner. The center-left socialists selected Martin Schulz, a German who has been President of the European Parliament since 2012. The centrist liberal group picked Guy Verhofstadt, a fierce EU integrationist and former Belgian prime minister. The Greens selected two candidates, MEPs Ska Keller (Germany) and José Bové (France). The communist-oriented European United Left group chose Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza party.

Parliament held three US-style televised presidential debates to showcase the candidates and generate public interest in the elections. Despite Juncker’s lacklustre performances– where candidates more adept at snappy sound-bites seemed to shine, he and his political group won a plurality in the election, taking 220 seats, compared to 191 for the second-placed socialists. Always a centrist willing to strike deals and make compromises, Juncker went to Parliament and successfully wooed MEPs of various political colors. He then returned to the Council to assure them he had the support of Parliament. While the Council nominates the President, Parliament must approve its nomination.

The member state leaders were never fans of the spitzencandidat system because it diminishes their powers. Some even questioned whether it had a sound legal basis. Confronted, however, with such the strongly held Parliamentary position, they caved. At a summit in June, all the EU leaders apart from two – the United Kingdom and Hungary – gave Juncker their blessing, and the required qualified majority approval. His nomination was confirmed in July when he won an impressive majority in the Parliament, with 422 voting for and 250 against.

The full team of 28 now awaits Parliament’s approval. With Juncker having distributed the policy portfolios - trade, justice, energy, euro etc. – the next step is for each commissioner-designate to appear before a parliamentary committee for a three-hour hearing, or ‘audition’ in EP lingo. They can expect a thorough grilling of their political affiliations, past records and future priorities. The hearings are scheduled to run from September 29 to October 7. Once completed, Parliament’s political and committee leaders will meet to score their performances.

Under the EU treaty, MEPs have power only to approve or reject the entire team. In practice, however, they have made shrewd use of parliamentary procedure and political pressure to accrue a quasi-veto power over individual nominees. A crucial precedent was set in 2004 when Italy was humiliatingly forced to withdraw its pick, Rocco Buttiglione, after a parliamentary committee called a confidence vote on him, which he lost 26-27. A conservative Catholic, Buttiglione’s stumbled spectacularly at his hearing by saying homosexuality was a sin and women needed the support of a husband to raise a family. Latvia’s nominee, Ingrida Udre was sent packing too, not for controversial comments but for having scant knowledge of her portfolio. In 2010, vetting a new team of Commissioners, MEPs claimed the scalp of Bulgaria’s Rumiana Jeleva, who withdrew following allegations that her husband had ties to organized crime coupled with a poor performance at her hearing.

This time round, Parliament seems less inclined to claim scalps because it has had more ownership of the nomination process than ever before, and because, in assigning portfolios, Juncker has made a real effort to accommodate the demands of the two biggest political groups, the EPP and S&D. What we will more likely see is the political groups sparring with one other to tweak portfolio assignments in a way that aligns more favorably with their policy agendas. Nonetheless, some nominees can expect a rough ride. For instance, the Greens are gunning for Spain’s Miguel Canete, the energy and climate nominee. He is being forced to sell his shares in two fuel storage companies, and will have to answer for remarks made after a debate when he suggested he went easy on a female opponent as showing his intellectual superiority over a woman would have made him look bad. Ireland’s Phil Hogan, who is tapped for agriculture, is in hot water for having tried to stop a family of Travellers – an Irish ethnic minority that faces similar challenges to the Roma – from getting public housing. Advocates of tighter regulation of EU banks are wary of putting Britain’s Jonathan Hill in charge of financial services given how dominant the City of London is in this sector not to mention UK’s non-participation in the Euro. Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics – education, culture and citizenship nominee - is vulnerable for belonging to the ruling Hungarian party Fidesz, which many in Parliament view as being euro-phobic and anti-democratic.

While not likely subject to Parliamentary rejection the “audition” performances of several key portfolio holders will be followed closely by those interested in EU-U.S. relations. Commissioner-designate for trade, Cecilia Malmström (Sweden) will be in charge of EU’s positions in the EU-U.S. free trade agreement, the TTIP. Italy’s Federica Mogherini, the new EU high representative, will be working with Washington on a raft of global security dossiers, from Gaza to Iran to Ukraine to Islamist terrorism. Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, in competition, will be handling the wide-ranging anti-trust probe into Google. And Slovakia’s Maros Sefkovic, in transport, will be dealing with an emerging spat over the U.S. administration’s refusal to grant a flying permit to a new subsidiary of budget airline Norwegian, a delay the Commission believes flouts the EU-U.S. Open Skies agreements.

If Team Juncker emerges from the vetting and voting process unscathed, it will take over the reins of power on November 1.