The Juncker Commission is coming up against some strong resistance as it enters the European Parliament. For example, the commissioner for financial services, Britishman Jonathan Hill, has shown great sympathy and erudition but very little knowledge of the sector he is to regulate. He has also displayed a clear willingness to dodge difficult questions by offering inconclusive answers. His difficulties are particularly serious because of his history as a lobbyist for the financial industry and his position in David Cameron’s government, which is extremely unpopular in Europe. Cameron also voted against the appointment of Juncker in the European Parliament.
There is also the case of Pierre Moscovici, the French ex-minister for finance, who will monitor the budgets of member states. His hearing coincides with the announcement that France will not only default on its deficit targets again but will do so without humility: “We do not ask Brussels for permission, we simply tell you the figures”, said Prime Minister Manuel Valls, which earned him a hard rebuke from the French liberal MEP Sylvie Goulard, who accused the Socialist government of “magical thinking” in a critical article in the Financial Times.
Spanish candidate Miguel Arias-Cañete, chosen as commissioner for climate and energy, is not looking too good either. He faces pressure for his personal ties to the oil industry in addition to his sexist comments during the campaign and the opacity of his financial interests. The Greens are very unhappy, to the extent that they have launched a campaign against him on Avaaz.org in which he is described as an “Oil Capo”.
Another candidate who is sure to experience problems is the Greek candidate for the immigration post, Dimitris Avramopoulos, who not only comes from a country where the treatment of immigrants hit rock bottom during the crisis, but has been criticised by human rights organisations on account of his last ministerial post in the Greek government. NGOs question whether a Greek defence minister is an appropriate choice for the role.
And in the same dubious list is the candidate tasked with defending fundamental rights in the role of commissioner for education, culture, youth, and citizenship: the Hungarian, Tibor Navracsics, appointed by the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán, who has an appalling record on freedom and fundamental rights. It is incomprehensible that Orbán’s party, FIDESZ, still continues to be ascribed to the European People’s Party, especially when it voted against the investiture of Juncker, who belongs to its own political family.
Some, like the president of the European Greens, Philippe Lambert, see these nominations as a satire. Others see the whole thing as being a bit more twisted. They suggest that this is all part of Juncker’s strategy to punish governments for imposing mediocre candidates or choosing posts according to national interests and by so doing, attempting to create a commission for themselves.
Inevitably, this game lends itself to speculation: it is hard to explain why the new president would put forward a Brit to head financial services, a Frenchman to head deficit control, an oilman to front climate change, a Greek defence minister to head migration, and a Hungarian to head fundamental rights. But if, as speculated, Juncker is forced to reorganise the distribution of departments, it is unlikely the commission will emerge strengthened; more likely, it will be weakened.
The fundamental issue is the process of hearings prior to the confirmation of the commission. This mechanism is proving extremely useful in terms of democratic control of the commission – note what has been achieved in the case of Arias-Cañete. But it has also been very revealing in terms of shedding light on the unresolved tensions that dominate politics between the European Parliament, the member states and the European Commission. On one hand, the European Union has taken a step towards parlimentarisation, voting for a presidential candidate through parliamentary elections. But on the other hand, we remain in a system that separates powers, and so makes the European Parliament look something like the US Congress.
To put it simply: the European Parliament has nominated the president of the European Commission, but it does not politically sustain the commission, so the commission has to win parliament’s approval vote by vote. Or the other way around: the European Commission is a government that lacks a stable parliamentary majority. Hence, those who vote for Juncker do not necessarily want to vote for his commissioners: the European Socialists voted for Juncker but want to remove Arias-Cañete; in retaliation, the Populars opposed Moscovici. And the liberals vote against Navracsics. In practice, the EU is ruled by a socialist-liberal-popular coalition, so Juncker’s Commission should have a comfortable majority backing it in parliament. But European politics are still fragmented along national lines. Politicisation is good for the EU – but partisan politics is an entirely different thing.
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