Cross-examining European Commissioners

Amid all the debate about what reforms we should want in the EU, it’s as well to remember that there are some things we do quite well at European level — and even a few that we do much better than back home in our individual countries!

One example is the way we vet our European Commissioners. Of course, the European Commission is neither the all-powerful elite nor the bumbling bureaucracy that the UK media likes to pretend, and its role in EU legislation is limited to proposing drafts and then implementing agreements made by elected politicians. Despite this mundane reality, the Commission does an important job, and so it’s right that the appointment and supervision of the 28 European Commissioners is done properly and democratically.

Like national ministers in the UK, Commissioners are not elected directly to their roles, but nominated by elected governments (one by each country). And, also like national ministers in the UK, there’s no need for them to have previously been elected to a parliament (many British ministers are members of the unelected House of Lords). Instead, like national ministers, Commissioners work under the supervision of an elected parliament which can dismiss them en bloc.

But there the similarities end. In Britain, the choice of individual government ministers is done by a stroke of the Prime Minister’s pen, without a parliamentary vote or prior scrutiny. Even if there were a vote, since every British government has a normally compliant majority in the Commons, gaining the latter’s approval would probably be a formality.

The appointment process for European Commissioners is more rigorous. After each European Parliament election, Commissioner candidates are nominated by national governments and then matched to various jobs by the newly-elected President of the Commission. These candidates must then appear before European Parliament committees in a series of public hearings, where they are each grilled in public for three hours, enabling MEPs to assess their qualifications for the post, their political priorities, and any potential conflicts of interest.

This is not a rubber-stamping exercise. As I reported during the most recent round of hearings in 2014, Parliament has a track record of conducting tough cross-examinations, and when MEPs uncover issues, we probe them thoroughly. We take our role seriously and we have shown ourselves entirely willing to withhold consent until satisfactory changes have been made to the line-up, the portfolios, or both — even if this means delays in electing the new Commission.

These public appointment hearings are a clear demonstration of the power of open democracy over what would otherwise be an entirely technocratic process. What’s more, we are determined to improve them even further. Today, Parliament will vote on a series of proposals I drafted after the 2014 hearings. None of them are earth-shattering — the process is already pretty good — but I do make a number of suggestions:

  • improving gender balance in the Commission (at the moment, our hands are tied by the genders of the candidate each country puts forward);
  • enhancing the incisive questioning format of the questioning at the hearings, so that each answer can be immediately followed by follow-up questions before moving on to the next subject;
  • allowing for second hearings in case the answers received first time around are unsatisfactory;
  • putting a deadline on national governments to propose their candidates.

If approved by Parliament, my proposals will make a difference to the next round of Commissioner hearings in 2019.

UPDATE: My recommendations were debated yesterday and approved today by a large majority of MEPs. There’s more information on Parliament’s own website.
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