MEPs keeping the commission in line
National parliaments could learn from the example of the EU's commissioner hearings, argues Richard Corbett.
With the near-completion of the hearings process, it's now reasonable to ask what the European parliament has achieved after two weeks of intensive questioning, investigation and cross-examination of proposed commissioners and how this compares to previous times.
As we've seen, the three-hour hearings are rigorous and often dramatic. Committees of MEPs, each packed with experts in the candidate's own policy area and drawn from across the political spectrum, have cross-examined each individual nominee. Candidates were challenged to declare their financial interests, explain their political priorities, defend their planned programme of work, and in some cases justify their very appropriateness for the office of commissioner in the first place.
The parliament has been cross-examining commissioner candidates in this way for nearly two decades. The process has frequently resulted in changes to the proposed line-up of commissioners: policy areas have been reshuffled, portfolios swapped, and more than once a candidate has been rejected outright, sending the relevant national government scurrying back to the drawing board to submit a replacement.
"The parliament is directly elected by citizens and has a duty to scrutinise commission candidates and assess their suitability for the job"
This time is no different, with all eyes currently on the demise of the prospective commissioner Alenka Bratušek, whose hearing revealed shortcomings so obvious that only 13 members of the convened committees voted for her, with 112 against. She will now be replaced by another, and hopefully better, nominee from Slovenia.
This means that parliament has once again secured a change in the composition of the commission, as it did both five and 10 years ago. This is notable because, under the treaty, parliament formally only votes on the commission as a whole and has no official say on individual commissioners-designate.
The hearings are not without disappointment though – especially with Arias Cañete staying 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 the EPP. However, a concession was made to the Socialists' 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'.
Beyond the headline-grabbing issue of personalities, parliament also secured a host of important adjustments to portfolios; including making sure that responsibility for the pharmaceutical industry moves back to the health commissioner – it had been astonishingly transferred to the enterprise portfolio.
Throughout the process, there have been suggestions that decisions on the commissioners are less about choosing the right people for the job, and more about parliament 'flexing its muscles', as if that were somehow illegitimate. But the parliament is directly elected by citizens and has a duty to scrutinise commission candidates and assess their suitability for the job. This process forms the beginning of parliament's continuous supervision of the commission, which sees its members regularly called to explain themselves before MEPs in the course of their work.
When it comes to representative democracy, many national parliaments could learn from this example when ministers are appointed, by also putting them through a 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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