|Juncker and Schulz in happier times...|
While the EP is certainly entitled to ask questions and has a role to play in the vetting process, we think the whole situation is getting a bit out of hand and that the Commissioner-designates are being set an almost impossible task. Let us outline a few reasons why.
1) Politicians expected to have the knowledge of technocrats. The EP was the driving force behind increasing the politicisation of the Commission, mostly through the Spitzenkandidaten process. With a more political Commission those inside will ultimately be more politicised, as will decision making. Nearly all the candidates are politicians with little technical experience. However, the EP is subjecting them to a level of scrutiny which no national incoming minister would be expected to pass on a brief they have in most cases never overseen. They seem more akin to the hearings a new central banker would face – the arch technocrats.The Commission has always been about a balance between political and technical expertise – it both proposes laws and is responsible for upholding them. There are legitimate questions that can be asked about potential conflicts of interest and a basic grasp of the policy issues at hand nut the EP has hugely overstepped the mark by seeking to pin down Commissioners to particular political agendas.
At the same however, MEPs are very intolerant of any Commissioners holding – as they see it – the ‘wrong’ political views meaning nominees have to tread a tightrope and try to appease a range of competing interests, e.g. promoting trade while protecting social standards, maintaining budgetary discipline while allowing for ‘flexibility’, or cutting energy costs while pursing green policies. This has led to accusations of a lack of coherence on the part of some Commissioners. This confusion over the Commission’s role is largely of the EP’s own making and sets an almost impossible task for the candidates.
2) Trying to force Commissioners to commit to policies ex-ante. This is simply a bad way to make policy. Sure, the candidates should outline key priorities and ideas, however, asking them whether they will or won’t pursue numerous policy proposals or will rule out certain actions over their entire five-year term seems to be overstepping the mark. Ultimately, the proposals the Commission will take forward are the result of a combined decision with the EP and member states and will be subject to economic and political circumstance.
3) The EP has a legislative role in trialogue negotiations, not in these hearings. Following on from the above point, the EP does not have a right to try to restrict the policy options of the Commission ex-ante. The EP has a role in the trialogue negotiations around legislation and can influence and change Commission proposals there. It should not double up this role by trying to tie the hands of new Commissioners by forcing them to take a policy stance before they have even had a chance to get an overview of their brief.
4) Hearings caught up in political games. There is no doubt that the hearings have become embroiled in political games, mostly between the centre right EPP and centre left S&D. While political trade-offs and negotiations are expected, these should not spill over into the public hearings and hamper the assessment of the competence of Commissioners.
5) Judging Commissioners on different and conflicting criteria. It is also obvious that there is no clear consensus on what basis to judge Commissioners. Some have been opposed on the basis of political allegiances, some on the basis of their nationality and some on their experience/knowledge (or a mix of the above). This picking and choosing of criteria once again undermines the process and makes it impossible for the Commissioners to know on what level they are being assessed. This has led to attempts to try to please everyone further worsening the scrutiny process.
The Spitzenkandidaten process was all about establishing greater political control over the Commission’s agenda (as we warned). The great mistake that EU leaders made over the appointment of Juncker (we’re not talking about Juncker himself, but giving into the EP over the process) has clearly had the effect of emboldening MEPs further. The Commission – and now the nominees – are the piggy in the middle in the increasingly fraught power battle between national governments and the EP. Throw in a large dose of intra-EP politicking and individual egos, and it is a recipe for chaos and one that is likely to further distance the EU institutions from electorates across Europe, particularly if the EP makes the running despite itself hardly securing a vote of confidence in May’s elections.