Lessons must be learned from failed commissioner hearings

Now that the dust has settled on the hearings of the commissioners-designate in the European Parliament, it is time for some critical reflections on the messy, partisan and in several other ways fundamentally flawed process for appointing arguably the most powerful people in the whole EU infrastructure.

We will put aside for now the manner in which member states nominate their specific Commission nominee; clearly the process in Slovenia, and probably in many other countries too, needs reform. It was not always easy to understand the logic of some nominations and taking the Commission as a whole, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) was shocked about the number of new commissioners with corporate backgrounds or other aspects of their careers which in our view, make them unsuitable to act as commissioner and promote the interests of 500 million EU citizens.

Yet aside from MEPs' oversight, and a rubber-stamping by the European Council, there is no other body charged with looking at the suitability of individual commissioner candidates or reviewing their declarations of interest. The Commission's ad hoc ethical committee has oversight over the code of conduct for commissioners but seemingly has no remit to look at the commissioners-designate or their declarations of interest. The European Ombudsman also has no role in the process.

So MEPs are left with this task and in 2014 they did a mixed job. In some committee hearings, MEPs posed thoughtful questions and where they were not properly answered, other MEPs asked follow-ups. But the format of a one-minute MEP question and a two-minute commissioner-designate response allows for bluff and bluster (on both sides) and can let commissioners off the hook. Surely a better system would allow for shorter questions, the opportunity to ask immediate follow-ups and a hearing which prioritises key topics and issues, rather than a system which instead prioritises all MEPs having their turn?

And the partisan nature of the hearings also left much to be desired. Bizarre clapping and cheer-leading by some MEPs at even the most anodyne utterance by the commissioner-designate at some committee hearings served to mask some important issues and made MEPs look like super-keen parents at a school football game rather than forensic interviewers.

Meanwhile, the code of conduct for commissioners and the declarations of interest forms which the candidates filled out were also shown to be inadequate to the job of effectively exposing possible conflicts of interests.

The declarations of interest for all commissioners were looked at by the European Parliament's legal affairs committee but that was in a closed session, with apparently no external advice, and no detailed record of these discussions has been made public. According to Green MEP Bart Staes, MEPs from the centre-right EPP political group prevented a broader, thorough assessment by the committee of the conflicts of interest of the candidate commissioners. This shows the need for an independent body to analyse conflicts of interests and other ethics issues.

In the hearing for Miguel Arias Cañete, the Spanish nominee as climate action and energy commissioner, substantial issues were raised about his own interests and those of his close family, but Cañete hid behind the ambiguity between the code of conduct and the declaration of interest form. The form asks for spouse/ partners' professional activities but the code itself refers to family interests which potentially are rather different. At stake was the extent of involvement of Cañete's brother-in-law in two petroleum companies Petrolífera Dúcar SL and Petrologis Canaris SL in which Cañete had recently sold his shares. Cañete still has not placed this highly relevant information in the public domain.

In the end, a secret political deal between Juncker and senior MEPs satisfied the Socialist group sufficiently that they did not oppose Cañete; this in turn led to the centre-right EPP group to not oppose Pierre Moscovici. And so the pieces on the chess board fell into place and the Juncker Commission was approved, pretty much intact.

According to Socialist MEP Kathleen van Brempt, the deal means Cañete has been put under permanent supervision by a “watchdog” in the shape of Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. Timmermans, according to van Brempt, also has the “special mission to watch over possible conflicts of interest within the Commission”, which means he will be watching over Cañete's possible conflicts of interest. “Cañete must also refrain from policy decisions that are directly related to his former interests in the oil sector," Van Brempt wrote on the S&D website. There is, however, no document in the public domain that clarifies any of these arrangements, and in fact Timmermans' office has told CEO by email that it is President Juncker or Vice-President Georgieva who are responsible for the commissioners' code of conduct. These issue really need urgent clarification; as it is, it is impossible to assess how far this deal will really prevent conflicts of interest.

CEO is today writing to Juncker to demand that the content of this deal are made public and to ask for clarification about how Cañete and his declaration of interest will be monitored. The code of conduct for commissioners says that commissioners should not deal with matters in their portfolio where they have a personal, family or financial interest and Juncker should make clear what issues Cañete will and will not work on. He should also be required to fill in a more complete declaration of interest form which lists his wider family interests.

But Cañete was not the only commissioner-designate who raised significant questions about possible conflicts of interest.

Ex-lobbyist, UK nominee and now financial services commissioner Jonathan Hill was challenged by some MEPs about his previous lobby clients and his recent shareholding in the lobby firm he co-founded in the 1990s. Hill stuck to the line that as he had sold his shares (apparently soon after being nominated as EU commissioner, although he had happily held onto them during his previous four year career as a UK government minister) that therefore there was no risk of a conflict of interest.

CEO begs to differ. Hill had no fewer than four trips through the revolving door between UK government and politics and the lobby/ PR industry. When he left Quiller Consultants in May 2010 to join the UK government, 55 per cent of Quiller's then declared clients (five out of nine) were either banks or finance firms. Quiller is owned by Huntsworth which also owns the EU lobby firm Grayling and UK firm Citigate, yet MEPs failed to secure any additional lobby safeguards on Hill ie. that he would not meet with Quiller, Huntsworth, Grayling, Citigate or any of their clients while commissioner. And because the commissioners' declaration of interest form only requires commissioners to declare current interests, Hill was not required to declare his recent shareholding.

All in all, the recent commissioners-designate hearings have indicated a number of additional areas where reform of the commissioner code of conduct is required. A recent report for the European Parliament has also produced a shopping list of required changes. This report said that the current code for commissioners has “fallen short of a comprehensive alignment with EU and international best practice” and “appears tilted towards the Commissioners’ political and career interests”.

But reform of the wider commissioner confirmation process will be required too. MEPs should carry out their own reflections on the recent hearings and with the benefit of hindsight ask themselves whether they really did the best job possible, on behalf of their voters, to hold the new EU executive to account.