October 13, 2019

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New EU Commission Confirmed

The new European Commission presided by Jean Claude Juncker was confirmed by the European Parliament on October 22 with 423  votes (on 751) and will start functioning as foreseen, from November 1.

Juncker presented his new team on September 10, “ in common accord” with the Council of Ministers, representing the Member States, but the whole Commission still needed to be subjected, as a body, to a vote of consent by the European Parliament.

This vote is by no means a formality: as soon as it received – in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty – the power to confirm the appointment of the Commission, the Parliament reinforced considerably its influence over the EU’s executive. José Manuel Barroso, in each of the two Commission he assembled, had to replace one commissioner at the last minute in order to pass the confirmation vote.

Juncker did not escape having to do the same. The fact that he had been “elected” by the Parliament did not help: in order to receive the green light for his Commission, he had to replace one candidate commissioner – the Slovenian Alenka Bratusek, and (slightly) reshuffle some portfolios. 

The vote in the Parliament is preceded by a hearing of each candidate organized by the Committee – or Committees – he or she will have to deal with. The “two tier” structure of Juncker’s team and the clusters of Commissioners he proposed made this process more complicated than before, partly also because this structure no longer corresponds to the Committee’s structure in the Parliament.

But the hearings were less about substance than politics: indeed, most candidate Commissioners don’t know much about their portfolios, having to rely on Juncker’s cabinet and various others in their interviews. Going too far in exposing personal views would indeed be odd – or dangerous – since all positions taken in the Commission are supposed to be collective.  

The hearings were really more about personalities, their country of origin and their political affiliations. During the process, a few fragile candidates were identified, on which pressure could easily be applied. Tracking them was made easier by Juncker’s provocative selection method of appointing commissioners with special interest in the issues they would have to deal with.

Who were at risk?

Pierre Moscovici, the ex- French Finance Minister, in charge of monitoring the national budgets, which his country will fail the test this year.

Miguel Cañete, the Spanish candidate for energy and climate, who has family ties to the oil industry

Jonathan Hill, who with the Financial Services portfolio, will oversee the City of London, even if he is British and an ex-lobbyist.

Tibor Navracsics, from Orban’s Fidesz party who was supposed to be in charge of “education, culture and…citizenship” .

And, last but not least, the Slovenian ex-prime Minister, Alenka Bratusek, who Juncker put in charge of the “Energy Union” as a Vice President, even if she had appointed herself as a candidate contrary to the wishes of her country’s new government.

There were some other unpleasant surprises: Cecilia Malmström, the future Trade Commissioner, gave two contradictory answers to a question about ISDS and Oettinger, the German candidate, showed no interest- nor competence – for the “digital agenda” he is supposed to deal with.

Those who got the best marks were:  Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Foreign Minister and well-known figure in Brussels, who will be Juncker’s number 2; Margrethe Vestager, selected for the powerful competition portfolio; and the three other “thematic” Vice presidents – ex prime Ministers: Ansip, from Estonia who impressed with his IT skills, Dombrovskis, who is expected to  share the Latvian “model” of economic recovery from the financial crisis, and Jyrki Katainen, in charge of reviving the EU economy, even if he is supposed to be a pillar of austerity policies.

Federica Mogherini did well, as she has done in all her recent appearances in Brussels – demonstrating that she is not at all “unexperienced “ for the High representative job.

But the Parliament’s attention concentrated essentially on the five potential weaknesses mentioned above.

Fortunately, party politics came to the rescue of Moscovici, a socialist – who was mainly attacked by the Christian Democrat EPP and Cañete, from Partido Popular, member of the EPP group, who was essentially criticized by the socialists. The two neutralized each other; their groups made a deal – and both were saved. To quiet those who doubted Cañete’s credentials on climate change, a new responsibility for “sustainable development was given to Timmermans!

Jonathan Hill did not belong to one of the major groups as, 5 years ago, David Cameron removed the British Conservatives from the EPP and created a “conservative” group, the ECR. His presentation was considered too weak and he was made to come to a second hearing; by then, those who still resisted his charm had to accept that it would be silly to veto the British “Lord of the Lords” nine months before the British elections. Hill then passed.

The Hungarian Tibor Navracsics made a good impression in his hearing and could use his EPP affiliation, but still, having given him a portfolio with “citizenship” was seen as a provocation. So a compromise was devised: he would be accepted, but the responsibility for “citizenship” would go to the Greek Avramopoulos, in charge of home affairs.

What helped save the four was the feeling that the Parliament would be satisfied with just one scapegoat, and the Slovene Alenka Bratusek was the ideal victim: her hearing was a disaster and she was not supported by her government, so it would be easy to replace her.

But by who?  The sense of power generated by the hearings was such in the Parliament’s political groups that the EPP and the S&D thought they could make the decision themselves – which was over-extending the limits of their institutional powers: the fellow Slovenian MEP they proposed was rejected by the new Slovenian prime minister. He sent instead his Deputy Prime Minister, Violeta Bulk, a strong business woman, whose only weakness was that she has only been in politics for a few months.

For this reason, she missed the Vice presidency for the Energy Union: Juncker gave that position to the Slovak Maros Sefcovic (who was already Vice president in the Barroso Commission) and she was given his transport portfolio (losing the “space” dimension which went to the Polish Bienkowska, in charge of the internal market).

One can argue that these hearings don’t have much sense, as long as they centre on the nationality of the candidates and their personal views on issues under community competence: Commissioners must swear that they will not defend national interests and, as mentioned above, they are not supposed to present personal views but only those agreed in the “College”.

However, what makes this open process of confirmation useful is that it is public and broadly reported in the media (at least those reporting on the Brussels bubble!), which makes the commissioners look more political – and less bureaucratic.  

Does this mean that the new Commission will really be more political? Probably: it is what Juncker wants. One of his first decisions was that the members of his team would no longer have their individual spokespersons: they are encouraged to meet the press in person and interact with the citizens.   

The new Commission to come is already preparing for its first policy challenge: presenting a united front to deal convincingly with the hot current policy issues, which will already be on the agenda of the December European Council,  the first one to be presided by the ex-Polish prime Minister, Donald Tusk. Among them the 300 billion package announced by Juncker to revive the EU economy. The new president promised it would be ready by Christmas.

© 2019 Covington & Burling LLP

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About this Author

Sebastian Vos, Covington, international trade lawyer
Partner

Sebastian Vos is co-chair of the firm’s public policy practice, and heads up its European division. He has extensive experience in the European Union and advises clients as they navigate and manage today’s global regulatory and policy challenges. 

Mr. Vos provides clients with strategic public policy, regulatory, and communications advice on a range of competition, trade, transactional and sectoral issues. Mr. Vos has particular expertise in advising companies in the technology, financial services, energy and transport sectors.

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Jean De Ruyt, Covington Burling, Regulatory attorney
Senior Advisor

Ambassador Jean De Ruyt is a senior public policy advisor in Covington’s EU public policy team.  Ambassador De Ruyt, a non-lawyer, is among the most experienced diplomats in Europe.  Most recently, he served as the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the European Union and was chair of the Committee of Permanent Representatives during the 2010 Belgian Presidency of the Council.

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