Why being ‘pants’ is no impediment to a bright future in the European Commission


Exactly what is the role of the European Parliament when it comes to voting on the College of Commissioners?

As an MEP I will shortly vote on Mr Juncker’s College of Commissioners. I have one vote. I can vote to endorse the College or I can vote for its dismissal. A blunt vote, indeed, you might argue. Like many votes in the Parliament it is a foregone conclusion. When the vote takes place in Strasbourg in November, the Parliament will endorse the College. Before you begin to rail against the anti-democratic European Parliament and its wicked ways, let me explain.

I know the College will be endorsed, because, before the vote, MEPs will have exercised a more subtle form of authority. Each Commissioner-designate will have gone through a hearing in front of the relevant committee of the Parliament. My committees interrogated four commissioners, responsible respectively for Energy & Climate Change, Energy Union, Environment & Fisheries, and ‘Jobs, Growth, Investment & Competitiveness’.

Some hearings are stormy affairs. Mr Miguel Cañete of Spain, the Commissioner-designate for Energy & Climate Change (check out the poster in the footer) was pummelled for over three hours on his relationship to the oil industry, his financial affairs, his wife’s financial affairs, his children’s financial affairs, his brother-in law’s financial affairs; he was asked a few questions about energy and climate change in the by-going. By the time of his hearing some 600,000 folks had signed an on-line petition demanding that Cañete, the ‘oil baron,’ be dropped.

The hearings done, each Committee gives its collective verdict on the candidate. Two questions are asked, ‘Is the candidate qualified to be a Commissioner?’ and ‘Is the candidate suited to the specific portfolio?’ Given the turbulence of Mr Cañete’s hearing, you might have thought his coat was on a shoogley peg. Well, this is where it becomes interesting.

The two major political groups in the European Parliament, the right of centre European People’s Party (EPP) and the left of centre Socialists & Democrats (S&D), have a vested interest in the appointment of candidates who hail from their political stables. Now while it is true to say that some of the candidates are exceptionally able (in my view, the standout candidate was definitely Frans Timmermans of the Netherlands), it would be equally true to say that some are not. Some have a sketchy past, with skeletons aplenty jangling in the closet (witness Mr Cañete). Equally true is the fact that some candidates are just not well suited to their portfolio. By way of example, in the eyes of countless bird charities Karmena Vella, the candidate for Environment & Fisheries, was ill-suited by dint of being Maltese - a Member State not exactly bird friendly.

Many speculated that the UK nominee, Lord Hill, would be thrown to the wolves. He was after all the only candidate compelled to attend a second hearing. However, despite his recall, he displayed an aptitude and attitude that won him new allies and confounded critics. Lord Hill was duly endorsed by committee.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the log in the centre of the jam was Pierre Moscovici, the French Socialist candidate. Mr Juncker had awarded Mr Moscovici the Economic and Monetary Affairs dossier. Big dossier, big member state, so no surprises there. Expect for one thing, the Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner polices the budget deficit rules set out in the ‘Stability & Growth Pact’. And guess which member state is in breach of said rules: France.

Following M. Moscovci’s hearing, MEPs fired off a letter containing an additional 22 questions, of which most related to (surprise, surprise) budget deficit reduction: What action should apply to member states whose budget deficit is constantly above 3% of GDP and which have already been granted an extension of the deadline to bringing down the deficit to Maastricht levels?; Would you agree that the principle that "prevention is better than cure" should apply to countries with an already high debt?; Do you think that the EU has the financial capacity and the political will to build up the financial firepower to save large countries from a default?

President Juncker is indeed crazy like a fox. In one simple move, he had Mr Moscovici on the back foot, France fearful that their candidate would be voted down, and the Socialist Group in the European Parliament in a guddle. The Socialists had made great play of their intention to vote out Mr Cañete (who of course belongs to the other camp). Alas, not to be. In order to save Mr Moscovici, the Socialists in the Parliament had to pocket their conscience and vote Cañete. Politics in the raw. It wasn’t pretty.

One Commissioner-designate was not quite so fortunate. Alenka Bratušek of Slovenia had been nominated as Vice President responsible for Energy Union. However, during her hearing, she demonstrated one key failing: she was pants. Now, as I noted above, being pants is no impediment to a bright future in the Commission. Her serious problem was that, in the absence of aptitude, she had no major allies in the Parliament to fight her corner. The Parliament’s Liberal Group, to which her party belongs, is much shriven since the last Euro-election, and so was too small to save her or to strike a deal with the other Groups to bolster her prospects. It seems the Liberals are in trouble everywhere.

Worth noting that Ms Bratušek was Prime Minister of Slovenia until the recent election, an election that her liberal party lost. In a daring act of chutzpah, her last act as Prime Minister was to nominate herself as her Slovenia’s Euro Commission candidate. So in the end not even her own country was willing to come out and fight for her nomination.

So as long as Slovenia nominates a sensible candidate, Mr Juncker will get his College. It’s a foregone conclusion.