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9 October 2014

What are the difficulties Lord Hill will face as EU Commissioner, and why?

Backroom deals will make life difficult for Lord Hill as EU Commissioner.

By Mary Honeyball

Lord Hill is not incompetent, and neither is he economically illiterate. Having come from his second hearing in front of MEPs and having earlier seen him perform at a meeting of Labour MEPs, hardly an easy ride for a Conservative nominated by David Cameron, I can honestly say he’s up to the job of EU Commissioner.

If I, a Labour MEP, am happy to endorse the affable Lord, you may well wonder why other MEPs have given him such a rough ride. The answer, of course, is that he’s a Tory and the EU as a whole is increasingly inpatient of the Conservative brand of Euroscepticism, whether it’s manifested in the Carswell/Reckless style EU-phobia or Cameron’s inconsistent, erratic approach, MEPs are tired.

Hill’s difficulties are also a result of some backroom negotiations (which he has not been part of) and which give the European Parliament a bad name.

Hill, whose Conservative party is the largest in the ECR Group, is suffering, along with Czech Commissioner-Designate Vera Jourova, a member of the Liberal (ALDE) Group from being outside backroom agreements made over the summer between the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrat Group (S&D).

The largest Group, the EPP and the second largest, the S&D, have sought to run the show and agreed not to oppose each other’s commission nominees.

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However, maintaining integrity and upholding principles are important, not to say fundamental, in politics. At least two Commissioners-Designate appear to be ethically challenged.

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Former Spanish agriculture minister and Popular Party grandee, Arias Cañete (EPP) described by El Pais as “always being on the edge of a conflict of interests,” has been a controversial figure from the outset.

As the former president of two oil companies, Cañete sold his shareholdings in Petrologis Canarias and Ducor SL, but his brother-in-law Miguel Domecq is a director of both. His son Arias has resigned as a board member at Ducor. If this does not create a conflict of interest for the Commissioner-Designate for energy and climate change, I don’t know what does.

Socialist and Democrat MEPs picked up on Cañete’s proximity to the oil industry during his hearing. In response the EPP went for the most visible target they could find – the high-profile French nominee, Pierre Moscovici. The fate of Mr Cañete and Mr Moscovici still has to be decided.

There is also the extraordinary story of the Former Prime Minister of Slovenia, Alenka Bratusek. She has been criticised for her ‘cunning manoeuvring’ after she nominated herself for the Commissioner position following her defeat in the country’s general election but while she was still the caretaker PM. She is being investigated for delaying the publication of a report into how she was nominated in July.

She supressed its publication until after the confirmation hearing in the European parliament yesterday. Although the report is ready she has simply failed to collect the notification letter with the result of the investigation from the post office.

Under Slovenian law the result of the investigation can’t be revealed until at after Bratusek receives the report and has the opportunity to issue a response. It was, therefore, somewhat of a surprise to learn that Juncker proposed Bratusek as one of the vice presidents-a super commissioner where she will have the responsibility for a number of portfolios.

Tibor Navracsics from Hungary, is the first candidate to be rejected by a European Parliament Committee at the hearings. MEPs are concerned that Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has amended Hungary’s constitution affecting media plurality, as well as making changes to the judiciary and some minority right groups. The MEPs fear that these steps have given the Fidesz Party (who Navracsics belongs to) too much power.

So, it’s beginning to look as if Jean-Claude Juncker may have to reshuffle at least some of the portfolios he wished to allocate to certain Commissioners-Designate. Some of this could have been avoided had he been more transparent at the start of the process and more rigorous about ethical matters.

What is clear is that the European Parliament, democratically elected with power to reject the European Commissioners, will quite simply not put up with deals concluded in smoke-filled rooms.

As we speak, negotiations are on-going; for example in the case of Bratusek there is mounting pressure for her to withdraw her candidacy. The situation is changing daily. The final decision will take place on 22 October when MEPs will vote in Strasbourg to accept or reject the entire Commission. Concerns over certain nominees must be resolved by then.