Lawmakers Advance Two Picks for Incoming European Commission

BRUSSELS (CN) – European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s vision for the EU’s administrative agency took better shape Thursday, as lawmakers pushed toward the goal of having all new commissioners seated by December.

Ursula von der Leyen, president-elect of the European Commission. (AP photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Prospective commissioners Thierry Breton of France and Adina Valean of Romania got the OK from lawmakers Thursday, while Oliver Várhelyi of Hungary has been asked to provide written answers to more questions.

Von der Leyen’s European Commission has already been delayed a month, after the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee rejected proposed commissioners from Hungary and Romania for conflicts of interest and the French candidate dropped out after intense questioning by lawmakers.

EU regulations stipulate that every member state must be represented on the European Commission, so Hungary, Romania and France had to put forth other candidates, all three of whom passed the legal affairs committee on Tuesday.

The candidates then moved on to answer questions from the parliamentary committee responsible for the portfolio of issues the commissioner will oversee.

Várhelyi began his three-hour session Thursday morning, the first of the three proposed commissioners. He started his opening statement in English before switching to French; French members of the European Parliament often want to ensure candidates can speak French.

As the prospective commission in charge of bringing in new member states and maintaining relationships with countries that border the EU, Várhelyi emphasized his plans to expand the EU by opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

On paper, Várhelyi seems like an uncontroversial pick. He has been in Brussels for over 20 years and is currently serving as the Hungarian ambassador to the European Union.

But lawmakers had tough questions about Várhelyi’s independence from Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban. The far-right leader has been at odds with the EU in recent years over the rule of law and the refugee crisis.

“We need proof of your independence,” said French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann.

Várhelyi repeatedly reassured the committee that he would be independent. “As commissioner, from the day I am elected I would be acting in a completely independent way. I will take no instruction from any government or any institution,” he said.

EU watchers called it a solid performance, though the parliament’s committee on foreign affairs was unconvinced. In the afternoon, they asked Várhelyi to answer five questions concerning human rights and other topics in writing by Monday.

The French and Romanian candidates had their three-hour sessions Thursday afternoon. Breton gave his opening statement in French, English and German, demonstrating his language abilities to the German contingent.

He noted important technologies he plans to focus on if confirmed as the internal market commissioner: artificial intelligence, 5G, 6G, cybersecurity, quantum technology, cloud and “post-cloud” computing.

“It is urgent to prepare tomorrow’s growth by investing in technologies of the future,” he said.

Though lawmakers asked several technical questions, the most strident questioning involved Breton’s personal fortunes and connections to business interests. He stepped down as the CEO of French IT multinational Atos in October.

“I no longer have any interests in the companies I have led. Zero. No interest,” he assured the internal market, consumer protection and industry committees’ members – who confirmed Breton after an hour of discussion Thursday.

While Breton was speaking, Vălean sat before the Committee on Transport and Tourism to answer questions about her qualifications to be the next transportation commissioner.

“We should stop talking about the antagonism between transport and climate policies,” said Vălean in her opening statement, which was only in English. She gave a solid if uninspired performance during the first half of the questions but struggled to answer questions in depth in the second half.

When asked to name a piece of legislation she would change to make Europe more competitive, she answered, “I can’t tell you right now.” When questioned by fellow Romanian minister Marian Marinescu about aviation taxes, Vălean replied, “I am not an expert in aviation like you.”

A member of Romania’s delegation to the European Parliament since 2007, Vălean did not face much personal scrutiny unlike her fellow prospective candidates.

“Thank you that you bore with me today,” Vălean told the committee during her closing remarks. Despite her struggles, she was confirmed.

Should Várhelyi eventually be given the go-ahead, von der Leyen’s commission will be voted on by the full European Parliament on Nov. 27.

However, Brexit continues to be a thorn in Europe’s side.

On Wednesday evening, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the European Union Tim Barrow informed von der Leyen that the U.K. will not nominate a commissioner before its national elections on Dec. 12. Von der Leyen is slated to take over the commission Dec. 1.

To seat the new commission without a member from the U.K. will require a change of regulations that must be approved by all 28 EU member states. Rather than taking a chance on that, the commission on Thursday launched infringement proceedings against the U.K. claiming the British government has breached its treaty obligations by declining to nominate a commissioner.

The British government has until Nov. 22 to respond to the commission’s complaint.

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