Commissioner hearings: time to rethink public policy strategies

by Dirk Frouws

A rocky start

During the hearings of the European Commissioners-designate, the new European Parliament showed that it wants to be taken seriously. The difficulties experienced by the incoming Commission were unprecedented and mean a troubled start for President Von der Leyen, who, in addition, was elected only by the narrowest of margins last July. The hearings also reflected the eye for an eye mentality between the different political groups in a fragmented European Parliament. These changing power dynamics in the institutions mean that a different approach is required for public affairs campaigns to be successful during the coming five years.

I. Background: fragmentation

In the middle of the Brexit crisis, the European elections of May 2019 sparked the interest of the European voters: for the first time since 1994 the average turnout was higher than 50%. People showed that they wanted to have their say about divisive topics such as migration, climate change, international trade and economic reform. While the many voters provided a boost for the democratic legitimacy of the Parliament, they also created a more fragmented assembly than before. For the first time since 1979 the Christian Democrats (EPP) and the Social Democrats (S&D) will not have a majority in the European Parliament between them.

For the first time, the two groups are now forced to work together with other pro-European groups such as the liberal Renew Europe and the Greens. During one of its first important votes, the new Parliament only narrowly confirmed Ursula von der Leyen as the new President of the European Commission by 383 votes to 327. Von der Leyen’s predecessors Jean-Claude Juncker, José Manuel Barroso and Romano Prodi had obtained much broader support. Only as far back as in 1994 Jacques Santer passed with a very slim margin of 260 to 238. Four years later, his Commission resigned en masse over corruption allegations, to avoid being forced to do so by the European Parliament.

II. Hearings

The fragmented European Parliament and the narrow support for Von der Leyen as the new Commission President provided a context for a difficult next step. The hearings of the Commissioners-designate are considered to be one of the most important supervisory powers the Parliament has over the Commission. The Parliament has the power to oblige the Commission to resign, but since 1994 it also tests the competence and knowledge of the new members of the incoming Commission. Parliament takes this role very seriously: MEPs expect to hear serious and concrete answers to their questions from competent and reliable candidates.

1. Trouble before the start

However, the rejection of two candidates – Rovana Plumb (transport) from Romania and László Trócsányi (neighbourhood & enlargement) from Hungary - by the Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) before the hearings even started was a historic first. The Committee had strong doubts about the financial integrity of the two Commissioners-designate and forced the Romanian and Hungarian governments to propose a new candidate. Not by coincidence, Plumb and Trócsányi were nominated by two governments that have often been at odds with Brussels over the past years. One of them belongs to the Christian Democrats (Trócsányi), the other to the Social Democrats (Plumb). The two biggest political groups took the first blow.

2. Grilling

The drastic and unprecedent decisions taken by the JURI Committee caused appetite among other MEPs to flex their muscles during the hearings. It was only a matter of time until a Commissioner-designate from a different political group would encounter resistance. The first victim was Janusz Wojchiechowski, the Polish nominee for the Agriculture portfolio, who was put forward by the Polish government party PiS (member of the ECR group). Whereas MEPs were hoping to hear concrete answers during the ‘grilling’, Wojchiechowski struggled to provide these and was given a red light by the AGRI committee.

It was no surprise that Sylvie Goulard, the French candidate nominated by President Emmanuel Macron for the Internal Market portfolio, encountered strong opposition. In 2017 she resigned as a Minister of Defence following a legal investigation into her use of assistants during her time as an MEP. Although the JURI Committee gave her the green light to proceed to the hearings, the IMCO and ITRE Committees responsible for the hearing, were not satisfied with her performance. Like Wojchiechowski, Goulard was forced to face another round of questions from the Parliament.

The Swedish candidate Ylva Johansson (S&D) for migration was also asked to respond to extra questions in writing after her hearing but was then approved by the LIBE committee.

3. Round 2

During his second hearing, Wojchiechowski was able to give sufficiently concrete answers to convince the AGRI committee to approve his candidature. Sylvie Goulard, however, was not able to give satisfactory answers about her integrity and was voted down by the IMCO and ITRE committees. There was no sign of appeasement between the political groups: rivalry between the groups was exposed once again.

III. Aftermath: Tension ahead

The start of the Von der Leyen Commission has been rocky to say the least. By comparison, in 2014 only one Commissioner-designate was rejected during the hearings while in 2009 two withdrew to avoid rejection. In addition, it is worth remembering that Ursula von der Leyen was not the European Parliament’s desired candidate for the presidency of the Commission. The Spitzenkandidat system was thrown overboard by the decision of the EU Member States to cast aside EPP’s Manfred Weber in favour of Ursula von der Leyen.

The difficult hearings show that the new European Parliament wants to be taken seriously by the Von der Leyen Commission. Any proposal the new Commission intends to put forward during the next five years will need to obtain broad support from political groups as the traditional grand coalition between the EPP and S&D no longer reaches a majority. The tensions between the political groups that were displayed during the hearings are a sign that the cooperation between groups will be complex. Undoubtedly, in order for public affairs campaigns to be effective, this delicate power balance will need to be taken into account.

At the time of writing, President Von der Leyen and the French, Hungarian and Romanian governments have not yet reached an agreement on the new candidates to take up the Internal Market, Neighbourhood & Enlargement and Transport portfolios, respectively. Barring further complications during the process of the hearings, Parliament will convene on 23 October in Strasbourg to vote on the new Commission as a whole. Von der Leyen will need the support of a simple majority. Regardless of whether or not the team is approved, the vote will not be the end of the political turmoil.

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