So here go not one, not two, but three Commissioners.
Granted, the polemics about the title of the portfolio for the Greek Commissioner, ‘Protecting the European way of life’, did sound like a provocation, and there was no doubt that a hard scrutiny in the European Parliament would be in store.
Yet, many simply failed to predict that the Commissioners’ path would be blocked even before the hearings of prospective Commissioners would start (and they did start a couple of weeks ago, on 30 September). Laszlo, Hungarian Commissioner designated for enlargement, and Plumb the Romanian Commissioner for trasport, have instead being ‘rejected’ by the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament. The Committee found they had too obvious conflicts of interests. This opportunity is given to the Committee by a rule in the annex of the rules of procedures of the European Parliament. This rule is commendable: nobody else is entrusted to check whether the Commissioners-designate (i.e., those proposed by the President of the Commission and which need to be approved, collectively, by the Parliament) can indeed represent the interests of the European Union.
In addition to the Legal Affairs Committee, each Commissioner-designate is heard by the European Parliament at a ‘confirmation hearing’. This is an occasion for the EP to inform its decision over consenting or rejecting the new Commission as a whole. It is also an occasion to hold the President of the Commission accountable, as we will explain later.
The Hungarian and Romanian Commissioner-designate did not make it to the hearing, but the designated French Commissioner Sylvie Goulard also failed to make it into the new college of commissioners. The European Parliament, at the confirmation hearing, took issue with the answers given by Goulard on the alleged wrongdoing during her time as a MEP. It is easy to suspect that the real target of the Parliament was not Goulard herself, but the French President Macron (who hastened to say ‘it’s not my fault’…).
Where does it leave us with interinstitutional relations? The impression is that the European Parliament, who has the power to approve or disapprove the entirety of the Commission, had to build enough criticism over the single Commissioners-designate in order to have leverage on Ursula von der Leyen and her new Commission.
The trajectory has been one of growing influence of the European Parliament since the first elections held with the rules established by the Treaty on the European Union as modified in Lisbon. The rule for the nomination of the President of the Commission is not univocal: ‘Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission’ (Article 17.7 TEU).
In 2014, the European Council and the European Parliament struggled over the name of the President of the Commission. The Parliament had the upper hand on that occasion: ‘taking into account the elections of the European Parliament’ was interpreted as meaning that the Spitzenkandidat (the top candidate) chosen by the relative majority party would be the President (Jean-Claude Juncker). Then, only a Commissioner was rejected, the former prime minister of Slovenia Bratusek,
In 2019, it was instead the Member States (championed by Macron) that imposed von der Leyen as President of the Commission (instead of Manfred Weber, the Spitzenkandidat of the European People’s Party, the party with relative majority of seats in the Parliament). The result is not surprising. Remember that in January 2018 the European Parliament had already stated that it ‘will be ready to reject any candidate in the investiture procedure of the Commission President who was not appointed as a Spitzenkandidat in the run-up to the European elections’.