quinta-feira, 24 de novembro de 2016
Oettinger divides loyalties in the European Parliament
Oettinger divides loyalties in the European Parliament
Parliament’s right to scrutinize appointments of commissioners has been hard won — and must not be cast aside.
By TIM KING 11/25/16, 5:34 AM CET
The desire of senior members of the European Parliament to protect Günther Oettinger from public scrutiny about his proposed change of responsibilities as a European commissioner indicates a failure to grasp what’s at stake.
The issue of how free the president of the European Commission is to reshape his college part-way through a term is at heart a trial of strength between the Berlaymont and Parliament. High-ranking MEPs like Manfred Weber and Ingeborg Grässle would be wise to look after the interests of their institution, rather than molly coddle the scandal-plagued Oettinger, even if he is a fellow German Christian Democrat.
Up until Tuesday, there were whispers — stoked perhaps by the German commissioner’s enemies — that the center-right European People’s Party was pressing for him to be excused a public examination of his fitness to change from the digital economy and society portfolio to that covering budget and human resources.
The attempt has failed and is therefore now denied. There will be a public exchange of views with MEPs from the Budgets, Budgetary Control and Constitutional Affairs Committees.
That is all for the good. Given his recent remarks to a business audience in Hamburg seemingly mocking Chinese people, women and gay marriage, plus his use of a private jet belonging to a lobbyist with links to the Russian government, the last thing Oettinger needs is another closed-doors meeting.
Not for the first time, the prospect of a commissioner being given a mauling by the Parliament has brought on an uncomfortable case of divided loyalties in the EPP.
Weber, recently reelected as leader of the EPP group, must weigh his loyalty to the German Christian Democrats against his loyalty to the institution of the Parliament. The former demands that he protect Oettinger; the latter that he put the independence of the Parliament ahead of the comfort of the Commission.
It’s the same for Grässle, who chairs Parliament’s Budgetary Control Committee. As a rule, she is ferociously combative — countless witnesses who have appeared before her committee still bear the emotional scars — but a click of the fingers from the party hierarchy acts like a tranquilizer dart, turning her from tiger to tabby.
Weber in particular should tread carefully. He is putting himself up for election as the EPP nominee for Parliament president. Whoever wins the EPP nomination is virtually assured the presidency because the EPP is the body’s biggest political group and can probably count on the support of the second-biggest group, the Socialists & Democrats. The two have a tradition of sharing out the top jobs between them. In which case the contest to take over the presidency from Martin Schulz in January will effectively be decided in December, when EPP MEPs make their choice, likely between Weber, Parliament Vice President Antonio Tajani, veteran French MEP Alain Lamassoure and Ireland’s Mairéad McGuinness.
How Oettinger’s nomination is now handled will provide a felicitous test of Weber’s appreciation of Parliament’s institutional significance. Its right to scrutinize the appointment of commissioners has been hard won and should not be put at risk — certainly not for the sake of protecting Oettinger, or his boss, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
At the end of the public examination, MEPs will not be given a vote on Oettinger’s new responsibilities.
There was no such vote in July when Valdis Dombrovskis took over responsibility for financial stability, financial services and capital markets union from Jonathan Hill, who resigned as Britain’s European commissioner after the vote for Brexit. But back in June 2008, when Jacques Barrot was switched from the transport portfolio to justice and home affairs, the Parliament held a vote, as well as a separate vote on the nomination of a new commissioner, Antonio Tajani.
Julian Priestley, who as secretary-general of the Parliament spent 10 years up to 2007 as the institution’s most powerful bureaucrat, devoted a chapter of his entertaining 2008 book “Six Battles That Shaped Europe’s Parliament” to how Parliament acquired the powers to vote on the appointment of a new Commission. He gave most credit to Klaus Hänsch, a German Social Democrat MEP who was president of the Parliament when a new Commission was being formed in 1994-95. It was he who instituted the practice of committee hearings for Commission-nominees, which passed off uncontroversially in 1995 and 1999, but blew up in the face of José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president-designate, in 2004, when Parliament threatened to reject the college. Two nominees — Rocco Buttiglione and Ingrida Udre — were replaced and other portfolios were switched. On each occasion since then, in 2009 and 2014, a nominee has been rejected (Rumiana Jeleva and Alenka Bratušek).
“It has been a case of pushing procedures to the limits, but not quite beyond” — Julian Priestley, former secretary-general of the European Parliament
Priestley stressed how Parliament attained its position of power incrementally. “It has been a case of pushing procedures to the limits, but not quite beyond,” he wrote.
The lesson of such struggles is that small steps can have a significant effect on the balance of power between the two bodies. That contest is not yet over.
The procedures for assessing nominations are set out in the Parliament’s rules of procedure — in rule 118 and in Appendix XVI. A revision of those rules was set in train after the 2014 hearings and the revision — drafted by Richard Corbett, a British center-left MEP, and the Constitutional Affairs Committee — is to be put to the Parliament for approval in the coming weeks. That would mean the revised rules would take effect from January, after Oettinger makes his appearance before the committees sometime in December.
The current rules make a distinction between i) the nomination of an entire college of commissioners at the outset of the five-year mandate; ii) the nomination of an individual commissioner, either at the admission of a new member country or to replace a commissioner who resigns; and iii) a substantial change to the portfolio of someone who is already a commissioner. The revised rules would narrow the difference between how the latter two cases are treated.
I do not myself think it makes much difference that a new commissioner is subjected to a hearing, whereas a commissioner whose portfolio is being changed is merely invited for “an exchange of views.” Both cases involve a hearing in front of a parliamentary committee and the television cameras.
But under the current procedures, the newly nominated commissioner receives a stricter form of evaluation. The revised rules would prescribe that Parliament make a similar evaluation of a commissioner changing portfolios.
I have spoken to some in the Parliament who think that the revised rules, if they come into effect next year, would guarantee a vote in the event of a commissioner changing of portfolios; and others who think it would not.
How useful a precedent is the Dombrovskis-Hill scenario, where Dombrovskis was already the vice president in charge of “a deeper and fairer economic and monetary union” and Hill’s powers were effectively being passed upward? A switch from commissioner for the digital economy and society to budget and human resources — with a remit that runs across all departments — seems of a different order.
A sense of loyalty to the EPP family should not blind either Weber or Grässle to their role as custodians of Hänsch’s achievements. They must let Oettinger’s hearing take its course and let Oettinger and Juncker take responsibility for the outcome. It was Juncker who decided to nominate Oettinger for new responsibilities. Parliament should not abase itself in order to accommodate that mistake.