September 28, 2014 / 10:29 PM / 3 years ago

U.S. trade pact in spotlight as new EU Commission faces grilling

Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming president of the European Commission (EC), presents the list of the European Commissioners and their jobs for the next five years, during a news conference at the EC headquarters in Brussels September 10, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union’s likely next trade chief will face tough questions about how she would handle free trade negotiations with the United States when confirmation hearings for the new European Commission open on Monday.

Sweden’s Cecilia Malmstrom will be among the first group of nominees to former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker’s new European Commission to face scrutiny from the European Parliament.

Malmstrom will have to address concerns among consumer and environmental groups and others that the EU’s plan to create the world’s largest free trade area with the United States could undermine European standards on data privacy, food safety and the environment.

The public hearings, being held over the next nine days, could make or break a plan to reshape the 28-nation EU under new management in an attempt to revive the economy and regain trust among its half-billion people.

Nominees for posts on the EU’s executive Commission, which both proposes EU laws and enforces compliance with them, will be subjected to three-hour hearings that could wreck the line-up proposed by Juncker.

The new team of 28 Commissioners, one for each EU country, includes five former prime ministers. It is scheduled to take over from the current team, led by Portugal’s Jose Manuel Barroso, for a five-year term starting Nov. 1.

Lawmakers are uneasy about several of Juncker’s appointments and the nominees from Britain, France, Spain and Hungary are expected to undergo particularly tough cross-examination.

“We will make sure all the commissioners face a very demanding level of scrutiny,” Gianni Pittella, leader of the center-left Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, said in a statement.

MISTRUST

The European Parliament can only approve or reject the new Commission as a whole, in a vote scheduled for Oct. 22, but it has used its veto power to oust some nominees in the past.

Two of Juncker’s most controversial decisions were to give Britain’s Jonathan Hill control of banking and to put France’s Pierre Moscovici in charge of budget discipline.

German lawmakers do not trust a Socialist former French finance minister to penalize his own country for breaching euro zone deficit limits while the left doubts Conservative lobbyist Hill will curb excess in the City of London financial center.

Hill’s hearing is on Wednesday and Moscovici’s on Thursday.

Environmentalists are furious at the choice of Spain’s Miguel Arias Canete for a combined energy and climate change portfolio, despite family interests in oil. His hearing is on Wednesday.

Tibor Navracsics from Hungary, whose brief covers education, culture and citizenship, faces a rough time convincing lawmakers concerned about his party’s record on democracy.

Malmstrom ensured she would have a lively confirmation hearing by suggesting in leaked written testimony to the parliament that she wants to exclude a controversial investor protection clause from a planned EU-U.S. free trade agreement.

Her statement pleased left-wing politicians who believe that including a mechanism in the agreement that would allow foreign companies to bring claims against a country if it breaches a trade treaty would hand too much power to multinationals.

However, a European Commission source said Malmstrom’s leaked testimony was wrong and would be corrected.

So EU lawmakers will want to ascertain Malmstrom’s real views on the investor protection clause when her hearing starts at 2.30 p.m. (0830 EDT).

Also facing questioning on Monday will be Malta’s Karmenu Vella, put in charge of environment and fisheries, Croatia’s Neven Mimica, responsible for international cooperation, and Germany’s Guenther Oettinger, who will deal with the digital economy in the new Commission.

Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald and Barbara Lewis; Editing by Eric Walsh

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