EUROPE: Shadow Falls Over New Leaders

  • by David Cronin (brussels)
  • Inter Press Service

The records of two nominees to the new European Commission are proving especially controversial during hearings before members of the European Parliament (MEPs). First, Bulgaria's nominee Rumiana Jeleva had to answer claims that she had not properly disclosed her interests in a consulting firm.

And second, Slovakia's nominee Maros Sefcovic is expected to be taken to task about his reputed bias against Roma gypsies when he meets MEPs in Strasbourg Jan. 18. The case against Sefcovic is based on remarks he made to a Brussels conference in 2005, where he stated that Roma in his country were exploiting its social welfare system. Sefcovic was Bratislava's ambassador to the EU at the time.

Like many battles in Brussels, the argument about the suitability of the candidates has more to do with the power struggle between the EU's institutions and its dominant political parties than questions of principle and substance.

During the last such round of hearings five years ago, the European Parliament asserted its authority over the Commission's president José Manuel Barroso when it pushed him to request that the Italian government withdraw its nominee. Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's then candidate for the Commission, had aroused the ire of liberal and left-leaning MEPs by stating that he regarded homosexuality as sinful.

Emboldened by that episode, many MEPs felt they had sent out an important signal of how they were not prepared to automatically rubber-stamp appointments to the Commission, the body which initiates EU laws. Speculation is rife that the Parliament could be about to reinforce this message by once again insisting on changes to the proposed EU executive this time around.

It is instructive, meanwhile, that the charges against the two most controversial nominees are being led by rival political groupings in the Parliament. On one side, Socialist and Liberal MEPs have been vociferous in opposing Jeleva. On the other, the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) has retaliated by taking up cudgels against Sefcovic.

Organisations campaigning against the widespread discrimination faced by Roma have generally kept their distance from this row. 'Sefcovic's 2005 remarks, if accurately reported, are inappropriate,' Rob Kushen from the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest told IPS. 'However, we hope that he will approach his new job in the Commission conscientiously and remember that Roma are an important part of his constituency within Slovakia and within Europe as a whole.'

Those observing the hearings expecting any change of orientation in the policies pursued by the Commission would have been disappointed. Several of the nominees used the hearings to underscore their faith in the neo- liberal ethos which characterised the Commission during Barroso's first stint as its president, and is likely to pervade during his second.

Karel de Gucht, the incoming commissioner for external trade, promised to champion the interests of multinational companies in his new role. De Gucht identified the abolition of 'non-tariff barriers' to trade as one of his key priorities. Such barriers include environmental and social standards in foreign countries that corporations consider as hostile to their activities.

De Gucht has a history of courting business lobbyists. As Belgium's foreign minister, he gathered representatives of 40 companies, including the food giant Nestlé, car manufacturer Toyota and top drug-maker GlaxoSmithKline, together in a 'permanent council' to provide advice on the direction of foreign policy. By contrast, his formal dialogue with public interest groups campaigning on such issues as human rights and the environment was limited to two meetings per year.

Responsibility for environmental and energy issues will be shared between a number of different commissioners in Barroso's new team. Barroso has tried to emphasise the importance he attaches to the environment by appointing the first ever EU commissioner dedicated solely to climate change. That post is to be filled by Connie Hedegaard, a Danish politician who chaired many of the preparatory discussions for the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen last month.

Green campaigners are not convinced, though, that the prominence given to environmental issues will be translated into action sufficient to prevent a catastrophic increase in global temperatures.

Some campaigners point to the close ties between incoming commissioners and the fossil fuel industry. Andris Piebalgs, the new commissioner for development aid, has held the energy portfolio in the outgoing team. For much of his five years in office, his 'special adviser' Rolf Linkohr has doubled up as the head of a consulting firm, which has had major energy firms on its books. And Janez Potocnik, the new environment commissioner, appointed several advisory groups dominated by representatives of fossil fuel and biotechnology companies to guide his previous work as the EU's scientific research chief.

Jorgo Riss, Brussels director for Greenpeace, said that he had not heard anything from the new commissioners to inspire confidence that they would steer Europe away from its traditional reliance on coal, oil and gas in favour of renewable energy. He expressed frustration about the level of attention being given in the Brussels institutions to such ideas as carbon capture and storage (the burial of pollutants from coal-fired stations underground) that have not been proven to be feasible or ecologically benign.

'There is a lot of attention to unproven big projects rather than to straightforward stuff like the insulation of housing,' Riss told IPS. 'This (insulation) could immediately provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of workmen across Europe. But the new commissioners do not seem to be interested in it.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service