The dynamics of the European Parliament’s hearings for European commissioners seem to have shifted in the past 24 hours.
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For the first two and half days of hearings and the first 12 nominees – the MEPs seemed to be in a forgiving mood. They tolerated those commissioners who gave vague answers or refused to commit themselves to do what the Parliament wanted. Perhaps Jonathan Hill’s greatest error was simply to be unlucky number 13 on the list (jointly with Vĕra Jourovà), for that is where the dynamics shifted.
His hearing took place on Wednesday afternoon. By the standards of the hearings up to that point, Hill’s performance was not particularly dreadful. If you compare the vagueness of Karmenu Vella in the first hearing with that of Hill, they are broadly similar. But on Wednesday evening the centre-left Socialists and Democrats took the lead in saying that they would not endorse Hill and that he still had questions to answer. That hardened to a view that he should be summoned for a second hearing.
And that, it seems, was enough to break the ice. MEPs replaced their earlier compliance and complacency with something bordering on cussedness. Pierre Moscovici and Miguel Arias Cañete may also, it now seems, be summoned for a second hearing. What started with a nominee who is affiliated to the European Conservatives and Reformists – Hill is a British Conservative – has now spread to a French socialist and the Spanish centre-right. [It may yet be that approval will also be withheld from Jourovà – a Czech liberal.]
Sven Giegold, a German centre-left MEP, observed that the grand coalition had broken down. He exaggerates: some parties in the grand coalition had worked out that complete silence would not redound to the credit of them or the Parliament. But the coalition still holds in practical terms, so long as centre-right doubts about Moscovici are balanced by centre-left doubts about Cañete. At this stage, the Parliament has not come out to declare any individual nominee unacceptable. What has happened is that the Parliament has invented a new mechanism – the second hearing – to exert pressure on the candidates.
In the case of both Moscovici and Cañete, that mechanism is useful because it allows MEPs to explore the relationship between Commission vice-presidents (there are to be seven) and the rest. The vice-presidents are to be questioned by the MEPs on Monday and Tuesday. It is unlikely that Moscovici and Cañete would be summoned for a second hearing until after that has happened. Procedurally, that would prolong the hearings at least until Wednesday (but perhaps longer because there will be a plenary session of the Parliament on Wednesday).
So what has changed over the past 24 hours? The MEPs have sent a signal to the remaining candidates that approval cannot be taken for granted; that candidates will be shamed, if not shot. Hill has had his knuckles rapped, but the Parliament has not yet declared outright war on David Cameron, the British prime minister. Moscovici and Cañete have been upbraided, but the coalition holds. In the course of the second half of Thursday, a trio of women nominees – Kristalina Georgieva, Elżbieta Bieńkowska, and Margrethe Vestager steadied the ship. So Team Juncker is still holding together.