The new Juncker College of Commissioners took office on 1 November, as originally scheduled. Many expected that the political turbulence over portfolios, nominees and priorities would delay the transfer of office. After portfolios were revised, teams reshuffled, new nominations were requested and last-minute concessions were made the Juncker Commission was accepted. The new Commission was approved without delay on 22 October with 423 votes in favour, 209 against and 67 abstentions.
Since the beginning of the Commissioner selection process, MEPs have been predominantly skeptical. They have been distrustful of the new structure, which empowers President Deputies more than other Commissioners, critical about nominee expertise, suspicious about national context and background, and dissatisfied with the lack of sufficient commitment in several important policy fields like environment and sustainable development.
The MEP dissatisfaction and distrust created a long and contentious nomination approval process. Following his first hearing, Jonathan Hill was invited to an additional interview. One of the most disputed nominees in the proposed team – the incumbent Hungarian foreign minister and a member of the Victor Orban’s party Fidesz, Tibor Navracsics – was a particularly lengthy process. Navracsics, nominated for the Education, Culture, Youth and Citizenship portfolio, did his best to convince EP of his commitment to the EU, European values and citizens but the MEPs needed more. Navracsics was required to submit written answers to six questions in which space he attempted to convey his allegiance to the EU and distance from the Orban government. His portfolio assignment was perhaps most difficult to comprehend in light of recent systemic restrictions on freedoms and human rights in Hungary. His responses were not enough for the CULT committee and his nomination was rejected. The eventual Juncker solution was the alteration of the portfolio. Rather than alter the portfolio holder, as ALDE and some Green MEPs requested, Juncker chose to remove “Citizenship” from Navracsics’ responsibility and reassign it to the “Migration and Home Affairs” portfolio. With that adjustment, Navracsics was welcomed into the newest Commission College.
Some environmentalist NGOs have protested against the merger of Energy and Climate Action in Canete’s portfolio but also against the lack of commitment to sustainable development in any of the Vice Presidents’ portfolios. In a last minute concession, sustainable development has been added to the portfolio of First Vice President Frans Timmermans who will also advise the President on the negotiating mandate of TTIP.
After her hearing before the European Parliament was received poorly, Slovenian ex-PM Alena Bratusek has retreated her nomination for a member of the EC. She was replaced by Violeta Bulc. Additionally, the Slovenian portfolio was changed from Vice President for Energy Union to Transport.
Presently, the new Commission is considered democratically legitimate with the support of a majority of the MEPs. Although that the proposed team, structure and priorities have been backed by the votes of the two leading political groups in the EP – EPP and S&D, the unity of the PES group and the presence of a stable majority is under question. Thirty S&D MEPs did not follow the political group line and did not support Juncker team.
The hardest work for the Commission may be yet to come. President Jean-Claude Juncker and his colleagues have committed to work to bring the citizens closer to the EU, to listen to their concerns, restore their confidence and trust in EU and to reinforce the EU’s democratic legitimacy. As of 1 November, let the work begin!