EU Parliament Sends Slovenian Pick Home in Commissioner Vetting Process (10/17)     Print Email

By Brian Beary, Washington Correspondent for Europolitics

The upset in the European Parliament hearings on the new EU Commissioner-designates was its outright rejection of Slovenia’s nominee, former Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek. After giving a poor performance during her three-hour grilling on October 6 for the energy union portfolio, Bratusek lost the parliamentary committee vote two days later by an embarrassingly large margin: 13 votes for, 112 against. She refused to go quietly, venting anger at what she felt was a setup and being especially bitter that many fellow Slovenians threw her to the wolves as she saw it.   But ultimately resignation was her only option. Slovenia moved swiftly to nominate Violeta Bulc, a recently-appointed minister, to replace her.

The Bratusek debacle cost Slovenia more than national pride. The new Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, removed from Slovenia the energy markets portfolio and a commission vice-presidency, giving the politically-inexperienced Bulc transport instead, an important policy area but less prestigious than energy.  Slovenia’s loss is a gain for another small, similarly-named Central European country, Slovakia, whose nominee, Maroš Šefčovič ,  was switched over from transport to energy markets and awarded a vice presidency. Under Barroso II, he has served as Vice President in charge of Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration.

One other nominee, Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics, received a negative vote from a parliamentary committee. His rejection was only partial as the culture committee cleared his credentials for commissioner generally but asked that he not be given the education, culture, youth and citizenship portfolio. Their objection to Navracsics stems from his being nominated by the Hungarian government, which many MEPs believe is undermining Hungarian democracy by new laws and constitutional changes.  Juncker is thus under pressure to transfer some of Navracsics’ portfolio to a colleague, although it is unclear if he will do this.

The hearings, which ran from September 29 to October 7, generated bad blood within the Parliament. The smaller groups, the Greens and Liberals, were angry that the two largest groups, the European Peoples Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), did a deal to save each other’s vulnerable nominees from the chopping board.  Pierre Moscovici (S&D) was attacked for his poor record as finance minister in curbing France’s public deficit, which is relevant to his new job as economic and monetary affairs commissioner.  He is supposed to enforce strict fiscal discipline on the member states. Spain’s Miguel Canete (EPP) was accused of having a conflict of interest, having been assigned the energy-climate brief despite until recently owning shares in oil companies. But with their groups’ solid backing, both emerged from the process with their jobs and portfolios intact. Their fate contrasted sharply with Bratusek, who is from the Liberals group.

Another highlight was a controversy that erupted over the leaking of responses to MEPs’ written questions sent by trade commissioner-designate, Sweden’s Cecilia Malmstrom, three days before her hearing on September 29. In the leaked document, Malmstrom vowed to exclude an investor-state-dispute-resolution (ISDS) mechanism from the free trade agreement,  TTIP,  she will be negotiating with the United States.   Malmstrom moved quickly to correct the record, saying that the leak was not the final draft and that she in fact was open to the possibility of including ISDS in TTIP. While feathers were ruffled over the episode, a strong performance at her hearing convinced the MEPs to approve her. The ISDS issue could resurface as there is evidence that Juncker’s own chief-of-staff is continuing to demand that Malmstrom exclude ISDS from the outset as he fears the EP will reject a TTIP that includes the mechanism.

Elsewhere, Britain’s nominee Jonathan Hill, who is assigned the financial services brief, was made to return for a second hearing, but ultimately received the green light. Some in Parliament remain concerned that Hill will go too easy on the City of London.

Assuming that Bulc and Šefčovič make it through their hearings scheduled for October 20  the Parliament is expected to approve the full team of 28 commissioners on October 22. The new EU executive will then take office on November 1.