BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A left-right alliance of big parties in the European Parliament delivered a near-complete endorsement of the new EU executive on Wednesday, after a week of partisan haggling that threatened to wreck Jean-Claude Juncker’s line-up.
The incoming president of the European Commission lost one casualty from the 27-strong team he had proposed to lawmakers; Slovenia will need to offer him a new candidate after its former premier Alenka Bratusek suffered a humiliating vote in committee on Wednesday night that found her unsuited to be a commissioner.
However, with the exception of a question mark over what role will be played by the Hungarian nominee whom a committee found unfit to oversee culture and education, the bulk of the Juncker team cleared the hurdle of a legislature keen to assert its powers and is set to take office on Nov. 1.
Juncker will need to do some reshuffling, but no major overhaul of a team that must balance the interests of big nations and respect the political balance of parliament, while also delivering on promises to create jobs and win back the trust of half a billion EU citizens disenchanted with EU bureaucracy amid an economic slump.
In a series of committee votes on key economic positions, Juncker’s center-right EPP and the next-biggest parliamentary group, the center-left S&D, effectively traded “hostages” they had taken from each other over the past week. Disputes began when the S&D helped block the approval of a Spanish conservative nominated to run a combined energy and climate change portfolio.
That move had brought a threat from the EPP to prevent French Socialist former finance minister Pierre Moscovici from taking the post of economics commissioner. That in turn put the endorsement of other center-right figures in jeopardy, including Britain’s Jonathan Hill as financial services commissioner.
As the pieces fell into place of a left-right bargain and all Juncker’s remaining nominees were approved, the Greens and other smaller parties, including some of the phalanx of anti-EU populists who entered parliament at elections in May, were left fuming at “back-room deals” cooked up by the major blocs.
“The cosy deal between the big political groups ensured the result was never really in doubt,” said Rebecca Harms of the Greens, who were particularly angered by the confirmation of Spain’s Miguel Arias Canete as energy and climate commissioner despite his family ties to the oil industry.
“MEPs from the bigger groups adopted a three-monkeys approach,” she said. “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
Leaders of the major parties, which saw their share of votes slide in the face of a surge of anti-EU sentiment in May, hailed the progress toward a new executive as a mark of parliament’s commitment to working with Juncker on his goals of reviving economic growth in order to regain public trust in the EU.
Manfred Weber, the German who leads the center-right EPP in parliament, tweeted that it was “time to work, not play games”.
“Today’s votes ... demonstrate our will, and that of our partners, to form a stable and democratic majority in the European Parliament able to get the EU to work in the interest of Europe’s citizens,” Weber said in a statement.
Gianni Pittella, his Italian opposite number at the S&D, said “tough negotiations” with Juncker, the conservative former prime minister of Luxembourg, had produced an agreement on a Commission that the center-left could support.
In particular, he said, Frans Timmermans, the center-left former Dutch foreign minister who will be Juncker’s first vice president and right-hand man, would ensure “sustainable development” is fostered across the Commission - a way to swallow Arias Canete securing the energy and climate brief.
Pittella also said Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics would have his portfolio revised to win parliamentary approval. A former justice minister in a Budapest government accused by EU critics of trampling on civil rights, Navracsics was endorsed as a commissioner by a committee on Monday but rejected for a role that included education, culture, youth and citizenship.
That last part - broadly speaking human rights - would now be given to another commissioner, an aide to Pittella said.
Bratusek, from the smaller liberal ALDE group, had always seemed a possible sacrifice to parliamentarians’ desire to be seen to exercise one of their key powers. She had nominated herself while caretaker prime minister after losing an election. A poor performance at her confirmation hearing on Monday led to a vote of roughly 10 to one to reject her on Wednesday.
The new center-left government in Ljubljana will now have a chance to add to the center-left tally on the Commission. Having just met a target for the number of women on his team, Juncker is likely to press Slovenia to name another in Bratusek’s place.
It is unlikely the new Slovenian would be offered her role as vice president for energy union, leaving Juncker’s final line-up unclear. He is expected to meet parliamentary leaders, including speaker Martin Schulz of the S&D, on Thursday.
Juncker has leveraged the fact that, unlike his predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso, he was chosen by the 28 EU states in a process that involved parliament. He has urged lawmakers to be consistent and support his choices for governing the bloc.
Juncker was the lead candidate of the EPP in May’s elections and defeated Schulz, the S&D lead candidate. Schulz stayed on as parliamentary speaker, however, and the two appear to be forming a “grand coalition” to give the Commission a majority.
Other nominees confirmed in their roles on Wednesday were Finland’s Jyrki Katainen, vice president for jobs and growth, and Latvian Valdis Dombrovskis, vice president for the euro.
Both former prime ministers, seen as fiscal hawks close to conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they will jointly oversee the work of Moscovici. The Frenchman struggled to convince some lawmakers that he can be trusted to impose budget discipline on his own former colleagues in Paris.
Hill had also labored in hearings last week to convince lawmakers that a former lobbyist from a country outside the euro zone and which has huge interests in its financial industry could be trusted to oversee banking across the EU.
Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis; Editing by Larry King