Setbacks hinder new College

Commission launches infringement proceedings against UK, remedial exam for the Hungarian Commissioner-designate

Photo: EU Ursula von der Leyen

Two major setbacks have again called into uncertainty whether the new College of Commissioners will be able to start work in the Berlaymont office on 1 December. At least such were the intentions of President-elect Ursula von der Leyen, conveyed by her spokesperson at the Commission's daily press briefing on Thursday.

The first jolt came on Wednesday evening, when at the last possible moment the British authorities send a note to the incoming EC President that the UK should not nominate a candidate for Commissioner and also other European and international appointments because the country is currently in pre-electoral phase, ahead of a general election next month.

Dana Spinant, deputy spokesperson for the next Commission, said it is important to note that in this letter the UK recognises its obligations as a Member State and also said that the UK would not wish to impede in anyway the formation of the European Commission. In fact, she stressed, the UK has expressed its wish to cooperate with the Commission to ensure that we do have a new European Commission as quickly as possible.

About 24 hours after receiving the letter, the EU executive announced that it launches infringement proceedings against the UK following its failure to name a candidate for EU Commissioner.

It says that, as the Guardian of the Treaties, the European Commission has sent a letter of formal notice to the United Kingdom for breaching its EU Treaty obligations by not suggesting a candidate for the post of EU Commissioner.

The UK authorities have until Friday 22 November at the latest to provide their views. This short time period is justified by the fact that the next Commission must enter into office as soon as possible.

After examining these observations, or if no observations are submitted within this time-limit, the Commission may, if appropriate, issue a Reasoned Opinion, the executive letter reads.

Also on Thursday, MEPs held the hearings to evaluate Commissioners-designate from France, Hungary and Romania based on their general competence, European commitment, personal independence, communication skills and to assess knowledge of their prospective portfolio.

Early in the morning, Foreign Affairs MEPs questioned the Hungarian Commissioner-designate for the Neighbourhood and Enlargement portfolio, Oliver Varhelyi.

“We need to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. At the same time, we also need a more effective accession process and preparations that are focused on delivering tangible results more quickly for people in their daily lives,” he told MEPs.

He accented as well that it was vital for the EU to ensure that the Eastern Partnership countries implement structural reforms, while continuing to stand by the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine.

Oliver Varhelyi said also that the partnership with the Southern Neighbourhood would be renewed, focusing on economic development, and making full use of the current Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument and the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, which should focus on investment.

MEPs grilled him on questions like how he plans to go about integrating the Western Balkans countries more quickly, given the current challenging political context. Some deputies expressed concerns “over whether the Commissioner-designate's loyalty will lie with the Hungarian government or the EU as a whole”.

He answered calmly, confidently and competently to the various questions he was asked.

Surprisingly, Varhelyi did not receive enough support from the political group coordinators at the evaluation meeting that was held shortly after the AFET Committee hearing ended. For clarifying pending issues related to his portfolio, it was decided that he should sent to the Committee MEPs written answers.

Renew Europe AFET Vice-Coordinator, Bulgarian MEP from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms Ilhan Kyuchyuk, who recently was chosen as the EP's next standing rapporteur on North Macedonia, stated that during the hearing Oliver Varhelyi said “he would take no instruction from any government or institutions and he would defend the EU position by acting in a completely independent way”.

I am confident that the launch of the written procedure will bring the expected answers for the major political groups to reach the necessary majority in AFET Committee to endorse Commissioner-designate for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi, Ilhan Kyuchyuk pointed out.

Although also getting some pressing questions, the other two candidates, Adina-Ioana Valean, with Transport portfolio, from Romania, and Thierry Breton, Internal Market portfolio, from France, passed unimpeded through the sieve of political groups. Observers in Brussels said that there is no reason to expect that Oliver Varhelyi will be rejected at the written answers.

Depending on the committee's recommendations, the Conference of Presidents will decide on 21 November if Parliament has received sufficient information to declare the hearing process closed. If this is the case, on 27 November, the full house will vote on the election of the whole Commission.

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