In October 2014, candidates for the new European Commission were put through their paces at public hearings of the parliamentary committees responsible for the portfolio to which they have been assigned at the European Parliament in Brussels. This process represents an important opportunity for citizens to examine the proposed Commissioners (Commissioners-designate) before they take office, and shows the Parliament, the only directly elected European institution, increasing in legitimacy and relevance.
The Commission, the powerful executive arm of the European Union (EU) is composed of one representative from each of the EU’s 28 Member States, and is responsible for upholding the Union’s treaties, for proposing legislation and implementing decisions, and for the day-to-day running of the EU institutions. This includes participating in the design and enforcement of bailout agreements for crisis-stricken member states, wide-ranging economic surveillance of national budgets, and the allocation of billions of euros in funding each year.
The job of assembling a team of Commissioners that strikes an acceptable balance between the size and location of each Member State, as well as the nationality, gender, political affiliations, and attributes of individual candidates, falls to President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker, a Luxembourgish Christian Democrat. Juncker spent the months since the European elections in May 2014 negotiating with national governments, political parties, and candidates until in September the Brussels rumour-mill ground to a halt with the announcement of the proposed Juncker Commission.
Juncker’s team are not yet able to seek refuge on the thirteenth floor of the Berlaymont, the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels, as the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC, Article 214(2)) provides for Commissioners-designate to be approved by Parliament before taking office. Members of Parliament (MEPs), scrutinise the credentials of Commissioners-designate via a series of 3-hour public-hearings, where candidates are grilled on their qualifications, knowledge of their proposed portfolios, inter-personal and communication skills and indeed, their political and personal lives.
Commissioners-designate are nominated by national governments, and once in office, little scope exists to allow for their removal. These hearings therefore provide an important opportunity for democratic oversight and transparency on behalf of European citizens.
In October, Parliament delayed the approval of 5 commissioners-designate who were deemed to have given less than satisfactory answers during their hearings. UK Conservative Jonathan Hill (Financial Stability, Financial Services & Capital Markets Union portfolio) is the only candidate to be called to a second hearing, while the others were asked to reply to specific written questions, and the Spanish centre-right candidate Miguel-Arias Cañete (Climate and Energy portfolio) had his financial declaration evaluated by Parliament before being approved.
It is fair to say that this process is part political-posturing, part theatre, and part genuine concern at the credentials and qualifications of certain Commissioners-designate. It is furthermore unsurprising that candidates from each of the four main political families (centre-right/EPP, centre-left/S&D, liberal/ALDE and conservative/ECR) were caught up in the tussle, with some arguing that the Czech liberal Jourová (Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality portfolio), whose performance at her hearing was generally regarded as not terrible, had been ‘caught in the crossfire’, as a hostage from the liberals needed to be taken amid the political-jockeying.
Once the chips were down, Parliament rejected former Slovenian prime-minister Alenka Bratušek (Vice-President for Energy portfolio), and removed ‘citizenship’ from the portfolio of Hungarian Tibor Navracsics, with all other candidates receiving the green light. Bratušek was described as being ‘spectacularly bad’ during her hearing. MEPs may have tolerated her however, had she not been nominated to a significant portfolio, and the treatment of Navarcsics comes as no surprise, as his ruling Fidesz party has been on a collision course with Brussels in recent years, given accusations of anti-democratic policies, and non-compliance with EU laws.
Following this, a further reshuffling of roles was required while a suitable Slovenian replacement was found. This happened remarkably quickly, with the relative political novice Violeta Bulc receiving the support of MEPs, and the Slovakian Maroš Šefčovič being promoted to the post of vice-president for energy union, allowing Juncker to ’take the reins on schedule’. on November 1st. This process doubtless caused headaches for Brussels bureaucrats, national governments and candidates, but it is good for democracy. The increased politicisation of the selection process for Commissioners, and the public scrutiny of candidates is progress towards bridging the oft-cited ‘democratic deficit’, and helps bring Europe closer to its citizens, a stated aim of the EU and its institutions, particularly following the mixed reception to the introduction of the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process to elect the Commission president, and the rise of far-right, populist, EU-sceptic and fringe parties at last May’s European elections.
It is unsurprising that the new Commission has been appointed more or less unchanged from what was presented by President Juncker in September as it reflects overall, like most things in the EU, the best available compromise. However, it is arguably not the outcome of these hearings that really matters, but rather the process through which they take place, and what this means for the development of democracy at EU-level, and for the increased democratic legitimacy of Parliament.