Commissioner hearings: what change has Parliament secured?

With the vote of confidence by the European Parliament (by 423 to 209) allowing the Juncker Commission to take office, it’s a good moment to ask what the Parliament has achieved after two weeks of intensive questioning, investigation and cross-examination of proposed commissioners.

The media focus was on whether one or the other candidate would fall. Parliament indeed triggered a change in the composition of the Commission, as it did both five and ten years ago, despite the fact that under the treaty, Parliament formally only votes on the Commission as a whole and has no official say on individual commissioners-designate.

But beyond the headline-grabbing issue of personalities, Parliament also secured a host of important adjustments to portfolios and policy commitments.

  • The Commission has firmed up its promise to put forward a proposal for £300 billion investment package to promote growth and jobs.
  • Responsibility for the pharmaceutical industry has been moved back to the health commissioner, rejecting an attempt to transfer this to the enterprise portfolio.
  • Moscovici, the socialist nominee for economic affairs, has had his role strengthened.
  • Mogherini will be better integrated with the Commission than Baroness Ashton was in her role as High Representative.
  • Navracsics, the Hungarian Commissioner in charge of culture, has had the citizenship part of his portfolio removed.
  • Juncker has firmed up opposition to the unacceptable parts of TTIP.

There will be widespread disappointment that Mr Arias Cañete stays in place — the Spanish nominee whose portfolio will be energy and climate change, despite former links to the oil industry. He was strongly protected in Parliament by his own political group, the centre-right EPP, the largest group in the Parliament. However, a concession was made to our concerns: he will now be supervised on issues of sustainability by the socialist Vice-President Frans Timmermans, Juncker’s number two, who is rapidly emerging as a ‘super commissioner’!

But leaving all this aside, even if all the commissioners, policies and priorities had been problem-free, the exercise would still have been worthwhile. It puts the spotlight on the future commissioners, exposing their personalities, shedding light on their priorities, showing strengths and weaknesses, revealing their approach.

Many national parliaments could learn from this when ministers are appointed; they could put them through a similar public grilling by the relevant parliamentary committee before they take office. I’m not holding my breath, but on this our venerable UK Houses of Parliament still have one or two things to learn from their younger sibling across the channel.

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