Rotten tomatoes or standing ovations? Commissioners hearings reviewed
Its the theatrical run everyone had been waiting for. Well, everyone in the Brussels bubble. Maybe.
Over the past couple of weeks, aspiring European commissioners have been putting on a series of one-woman and one-man shows at the European Parliament. Their aim: to convince MEPs that they deserve a five-year run on the Brussels stage.
So who won over the audience and the critics in their confirmation hearings? Who was more “meh” than megastar? And who had the punters reaching for the rotten fruit?
POLITICO watched every performance (so normal people didnt have to) and the reviews are in.
Frans Timmermans (Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal, Netherlands)
High point: Timmermans rendition of a snippet of poetry from Edwin James Milliken to liken the Earths climate trajectory to that of a man who falls asleep while driving a train — a rather dramatic end to the hearing. “For the pace is hot, and the points are near, and sleep hath deadened the drivers ear; and signals flash through the night in vain. Death is in charge of the clattering train!”
Timmermans charmed MEPs with his linguistic skills, made some firm policy pledges and kept the drama to a minimum Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Low point: The largely polished Timmermans flubbed in a couple policy areas that did not go unnoticed by MEPs — he erroneously suggested the EUs Emissions Trading System did not cover aviation and was accused of dodging questions on agriculture.
Key quote: “Its absolutely clear theres no future in coal.”
Verdict: Akin to a well-produced documentary. Timmermans charmed MEPs with his linguistic skills, made some firm policy pledges and kept the drama to a minimum.
Rating (out of 5): 1/2
Didier Reynders (Justice, Belgium)
High point: Reynders championed the rule of law and consumers. He pleased many MEPs by pledging to push hard for an answer from the Council on a controversial proposal that would allow groups of consumers to sue companies and seek compensation.
Low point: MEPs tried to push Reynders on domestic allegations of corruption but he stuck to his lawyer-approved boilerplate answer and denied all allegations. “This person publicly stated he wanted to stop me from becoming European commissioner,” he said. “I wouldnt wish on anybody what my family, my spouse, those close to me had to experience.”
Key quote: “We need to ask more and more information on the algorithms” — promising to open the black box of artificial intelligence.
Didier Reynders didnt get into trouble, dodged domestic allegations successfully and smoothly handled questions| Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Plot twist: The lights went out in the middle of the hearing, forcing everyone to move two floors up. The ushers got a huge round of applause for preparing a new room within 20 minutes.
Verdict: Solid all-round performance. Didnt get into trouble, dodged domestic allegations successfully and smoothly handled questions ranging from consumer rights to rule of law, and from data protection to AI.
Stella Kyriakides (Health, Cyprus)
High point: A breast cancer survivor and former president of a breast cancer patients group, Kyriakides got into the weeds on cancer prevention methods as she called for “all hands on deck” to beat the disease.
Low point: “Im trying to understand why I havent been convincing on pesticides,” Kyriakides said after fielding five questions on the topic.
Though MEPs were, indeed, unconvinced by what she said on pesticides, they soaked up Stella Kyriakides expertise on health | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “In no way do I underestimate the effect that pesticides have on health, and it would be unheard of to be health commissioner and not to take this on.”
Verdict: Though MEPs were, indeed, unconvinced by what she said on pesticides, they soaked up Kyriakides expertise on health — especially given that her hearing was immediately after Polish nominee Janusz Wojciechowskis first, bumbling performance.
Phil Hogan (Trade, Ireland)
High point: Hogan won spontaneous applause from across the political spectrum after a hearing in which he ticked all the boxes: He knew the MEPs and the subjects that mattered to them. He had the talking points to address each major political groups priorities.
Low point: He kept getting his future bosss name wrong: He talked about a certain “Mrs. van der Leyen.” He also ducked questions on how he planned to enforce environmental and labor rights chapters in trade agreements.
Hogan was well-prepared. It was clear that he was not on the parliamentarians hit list | Kenzo Triboullard/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “Europe has to stand up for itself.”
Verdict: Hogan was well-prepared. It was clear that he was not on the parliamentarians hit list.
Helena Dalli (Equality, Malta)
High point: Dalli quickly shot down an MEP from the far-right ID group, who suggested that allowing people to “choose” their gender would allow people to “cheat” sporting rules. “Gender reassignment is certainly not a walk in the park,” Dalli said to applause.
Low point: Dalli didnt reply directly to a question about whether she was satisfied with the public inquiry set up last month by the Maltese government to look into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Helena Dallis strong and personal testimony impressed MEPs| Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “The 21st century must be the century of women being equal.”
Verdict: Dallis strong and personal testimony impressed MEPs and within hours it was clear she had the necessary majority to be confirmed.
Virginijus Sinkevičius (Environment & Oceans, Lithuania)
High point: “For us 2050 is not just a target on a piece of paper, we have to live it,” the 28-year-old nominee said of the lofty goal of reaching climate neutrality by mid-century.
Low point: May regret overpromising. He pledged a non-toxic environment strategy that “needs to go beyond” what the outgoing Commission proposed and an update of air pollution standards in line with World Health Organization recommendations. Those would need the approval of the entire College of Commissioners — no easy task for a newbie.
Virginijus Sinkevičius was well prepared, often citing facts and figures | Oliver Hoslet/EPA-EFE
Key quote: “This mandate will be the greenest that Europe has ever seen.”
Verdict: Smooth sailing. Sinkevičius was well prepared, often citing facts and figures, and his bold ambitions impressed MEPs. Within hours they gave him the green light.
Elisa Ferreira (Cohesion & Reforms, Portugal)
High point: Ferreira decided to address concerns about potential conflicts of interest head-on. She said shed abstain from EU funding decisions which could directly or indirectly impact the personal interests of her husband, who works for a regional development body.
Low point: Couldnt give a clear answer on where the money will come from for a Just Transition Fund, meant to ease the move to green energy for countries heavily dependent on fossil fuels.
Ferreiras hearing ended with a long round of applause from MEPs from across the political spectrum | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “You will be hearing from us soon, with a Commission proposal in the first 100 days” on that transition fund.
Verdict: Ferreiras hearing ended with a long round of applause from MEPs from across the political spectrum, showing she enjoys broad support. She may not have had all the answers but they liked her nonetheless.
Maroš Šefčovič (Vice President for Interinstitutional relations & Foresight, Slovakia)
High point: “As an expert on foresight, you already know what Im going to say … What will I have for dinner?” asked Green MEP Nico Semsrott, a satirist by profession. “Its true, some of my colleagues have been asking me if I can tell them what will be the next Lotto numbers,” Šefčovič quipped back.
Low point: Šefčovič struggled to defend his boss Ursula von der Leyens plan for a “one in, one out” policy to limit the volume of EU legislation — something MEPs said could reduce consumer and environmental protections. “The European Union isnt a nightclub,” German MEP Tiemo Wölken said.
Maroš Šefčovič made sure to hit the right notes to fuel Parliaments ambitions | Kenzo Triboullard/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: Šefčovič pledged a “special partnership” with the European Parliament that includes “a new right of initiative, which I know is very important for you.”
Verdict: A smooth opening act in which Šefčovič made sure to hit the right notes to fuel Parliaments ambitions.
Paolo Gentiloni (Economy, Italy)
High point: “I shall defend to the hilt the cause of Europe,” the former Italian prime minister said in closing remarks that put an exclamation point on his overall approach: show gravitas and present himself as someone able to put aside nationality.
Low point: Asked about his assets — property including four apartments plus €620,000 of securities — Gentiloni turned slightly defensive, perhaps not in tone but in words. “I wasnt rich by any means,” he said and offered a joke that didnt quite land about how Italian media had inflated his holdings into “the portfolio of a millionaire.” But he said hed sold off his stocks, which had included more than €100,000 in Amazon shares.
Paolo Gentiloni showed a deft hand in signaling to both sides of Europes north-south divide |Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “I want to be very clear on this, crystal clear, if possible. Im not and I will not be the representative of a single government in the Commission.”
Verdict: Put the issue of national loyalties to bed from the start, with a mix of high rhetoric about European ideals and some skillful bureaucratic misdirection. Also showed a deft hand in signaling to both sides of Europes north-south divide, calling for a shared unemployment program while pledging no “permanent transfer from country to country” of funds.
Nicolas Schmit (Jobs, Luxembourg)
High point: Schmit assured Nordic MEPs that a minimum wage framework he plans to put forward “rapidly” wont undermine their collective bargaining systems.
Low point: British MEP Matthew Patten accused Schmit of failing to address discrimination in the labor market. The blocs motto may as well be, “united in diversity, as long as youre white,” Patten said.
For Nicolas Schmit this was an easy game | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “No country should be allowed to use social dumping for its own workers. That flies in the face of the European spirit.”
Verdict: For Schmit, a longtime employment minister turned MEP in Parliaments Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, this was an easy home game.
Jutta Urpilainen (International Partnerships, Finland)
High point: “Eradication of poverty is at the center of our work,” Urpilainen told legislators. That likely came as a relief to many development advocates, who fear development funding will be hijacked for other policy priorities, such as migration.
Low point: There wasnt really one in what was a low-key hearing.
Jutta Urpilainen flew through her friendly hearing, finishing half an hour ahead of time | Kenzo Triboullard/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “I see that we need to invest more in Africa, and we need to have [the] private sector to be part of that approach.”
Verdict: The former Finnish finance minister flew through her friendly hearing, finishing half an hour ahead of time.
Margaritis Schinas (Vice President for Protecting our European Way of Life, Greece)
High point: Schinas deftly deflected concerns about his job title. After three hours of questions, it was even a subject for humor. Juan Fernando López Aguilar, who co-chaired the hearing, joked that “working this late is definitely not in line with the European way of life.”
Low point: For those who tuned in for answers on the EUs plans to fight disinformation and digital threats, Schinas hearing was a disappointment — with no mention of fighting hybrid threats, cybercrime or other security threats.
The hearing of Margaritis Schinas was a smooth operation | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “The job I am entrusted to do is one that has never existed before. It is a new job,” Schinas said. “Although the job is new, the problems are old, and they are deeply rooted.”
Verdict: Smooth operation. All the communication skills of the Commissions former chief spokesman were deployed to defuse arguments over his job title and win confirmation.
Middle of the road
Johannes Hahn (Budget & Administration, Austria)
High point: Auditioning for his third term as a commissioner, Hahn made the most of his strong relationships with MEPs, noting many in the room already have his mobile number.
Low point: He struggled to answer the question of how the new Commission will finance its ambitious policy pledges, in particular on climate.
MEPs were not always convinced by Johannes Hahns replies, but were nonetheless impressed by his years of experience | Kenzo Triboullard/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “It would be not serious if I give you a promise about a certain percentage,” Hahn told MEPs when discussing the size of the future EU budget. Not a great soundbite but smart — as that figure will be the subject of bitter debate among member countries.
Verdict: MEPs were not always convinced by Hahns replies, but were nonetheless impressed by his years of experience, directness and knowledge of topic area.
Josep Borrell (EU high representative for foreign affairs, Spain)
High point: (For Borrell, anyway. Not for Parliament as a watchdog.) Getting a round of applause for stopping to drink some coffee before giving his closing statement.
Low point: Coming under repeated questioning over his financial affairs, including a fine for insider trading. Borrell repeatedly insisted he had not deliberately done anything wrong and suggested the timing of the controversial share sale was an unfortunate accident.
Josep Borrell was always unlikely to face a rough ride | Kenzo Triboullard/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “I believe that borders are the scars that history left engraved on the skin of the earth, has etched with blood and fire, and that the progress of humanity consists in overcoming borders.”
Verdict: As a former president of the Parliament, Borrell was always unlikely to face a rough ride. Assured but not dazzling display.
Margrethe Vestager (Executive Vice President for Europe fit for the digital age, Denmark)
High point: When told by Brexit Party MEP John Tennant that he was looking forward to Britains departure from the EU so the country could gain greater sovereignty (particularly over its tax dealings) but that she should “carry on,” Vestager quipped: “I dont share your views, but I appreciate your good wishes.”
Low point: Vestager did not provide convincing replies to MEPs asking about how she would manage her two hats, as executive vice president for digital affairs and also competition chief. There are worries she cant be Europe industrys coach and referee at the same time. She kept repeating that “the independence in law enforcement is non-negotiable,” but conceded the issue would require “some care.”
Margarethe Vestager is barely changing portfolio and she already had first-hand experience of what confirmation hearings are all about | Aris Oikinomou/AFP via Getty Images
Key quote: “I will do my best in the second season.” (In a reference to the hit Danish political TV drama “Borgen,” which she reportedly inspired.)
Verdict: Good but not wow. Vestager is barely changing portfolio and she already had first-hand experience of what confirmation hearings are all about. Not a standout performance from the nominee — or her remarkably tame audience.
Věra Jourová (Vice President for Values and Transparency, Czech Republic)
High point: Striking a balance between the work of the current Commission on rule of law and making clear shed do things her own way. Managed to pay respect to current rule-of-law supremo while also making clear she wouldnt just be Timmermans II.
Low point: Jourová struggled with questions about threats to journalists coming from their own national governments inside the EU, admitting that theres not much the Commission can do to help: “This is a very difficult question, and I will not pretend that the European Union is equipped with strong legislative or executive power in these cases.”
Věra Jourovás performance, in which she also struggled to keep to time, did not wow those expecting more innovative and substantive ideas | Stephae Lecocq/EPA-EFE
Key quote: Pledging to make tech platforms more accountable for the content they carry. “The e-commerce directive is still a very strong legislation, which says that platforms are not responsible for the content … And we will have to look at this to see if we need a stronger push to increase the responsibility,” she said. “I am convinced that we need such a push.”
Verdict: The veteran commissioners performance, in which she also struggled to keep to time, did not wow those expecting more innovative and substantive ideas on improving transparency, protecting European democracy and enforcing the rule of law.
Valdis Dombrovskis (Executive Vice President for an Economy that Works for People, Latvia)
High point: Dombrovskis delivered a clear pledge to introduce legislation for the virtual currency backed by Facebook — calling out Libra by name, with no hedging about commissioning studies, convening expert panels or plotting roadmaps.
Low point: Right-wing Slovak MEP Miroslav Radačovský devoted part of his question time to name-checking a businessman from his hometown and voicing hope that more people from eastern Slovakia would make it to the Parliament.
Valdis Dombrovskis was successful in his mission ofRead More – Source