October 12, 2014 / 12:05 PM / 3 years ago

In Brussels, reasons to be cheerful

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Jean-Claude Juncker has come through his first big test as the European Union’s chief executive with reasons to be cheerful, even if he faces another tricky couple of weeks to get a team in place that can take office next month.

European flags are seen outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels September 10, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The president-elect of the European Commission was pleased, aides said, to see all but one of his 27 picks win approval in the European Parliament, leaving only the slightly awkward task of finding a role for the Slovenian substitute who arrives this week after lawmakers rejected the first nominee from Ljubljana.

“There was a really positive message,” one official said. “Mr. Juncker is very satisfied with the outcome.”

But if the incoming head of the executive can claim success in the institutional tug-of-war with the legislature that is a feature of EU politics, lawmakers also saw positives in how they asserted their powers during a rare moment in the limelight.

And both parliamentary friends and foes of the president-elect argued they were encouraged by the voting in the confirmation hearings - a five-yearly spectacle that is part seminar for policy wonks, part bear-baiting.

How Commission and Parliament interact can determine how far Juncker succeeds in a program, endorsed by leaders of the 28 member states, to focus energies on reviving and modernizing the economy, create jobs and win back the trust of voters who turned despairingly toward Eurosceptic parties at EU elections in May.

If players across the board found grounds for cheer, it is a safe bet the outlook is mixed: Juncker, who survived nearly two decades as prime minister of Luxembourg, can build majorities among the MEPs, but that may well vary issue by issue.

Parliament, with its “awkward squad” of media-savvy populists and concern to assert its institutional role, will amend - at times obstruct - Commission policy, notably in areas such as trade, finance, the environment or data protection, where many MEPs find the EU executive too pro-business.

GRAND COALITION

The so far fairly smooth passage of the new Commission has been assured by an informal “grand coalition” between the main right and left groups which control 55 percent of seats.

Juncker’s predecessor, Jose Manuel Barroso, suffered serious maulings, twice, during the confirmation hearings that follow EU legislative elections every five years. “The coalition has worked,” said the EU official close to Juncker.

Unlike Barroso, Juncker can claim to have a mandate from parliament in the first place. Predecessors were exclusively the nominees of the European Council of member state governments.

But this time, EU leaders chose Juncker partly as he had been the “lead candidate” of the victorious center EPP in the parliamentary election. Meanwhile, the runner-up, from the center S&D, remained speaker of parliament.

A series of late-night votes in committee saw the EPP and S&D back down from threats of what lawmakers called “mutually assured destruction” and jointly backed each others nominees.

That, said the EPP’s German floor leader Manfred Weber, showed “our will, and that of our partners, to form a stable and democratic majority in the European Parliament”.

His S&D counterpart also praised the outcome, though Italian Gianni Pittella insisted there was “no non-aggression pact”.

Smaller parties did not conceal dismay. Greens were downcast at what they saw as business interests trumping the environment.

“With this crooked deal, the grand coalition in the EU parliament has trampled all over European democracy,” bemoaned Sven Giegold, a leading German Greens member who was incensed by the way the left backed a Spanish conservative with ties to the oil industry as energy and climate change commissioner.

The S&D sold out by backing several right-wingers just to prevent an EPP veto on a single job - French Socialist Pierre Moscovici becoming economy commissioner, Giegold said: “The European Parliament’s hard-won right to confirmation hearings has been undermined by tactical party calculations.”

SHIFTING ALLIANCES

For many, however, parliament will remain a force to be reckoned with for the Commission and its new leader.

“There is no formal grand coalition ... You have to build your coalition every time on every issue,” cautioned Richard Corbett, a long-serving British Labour MEP in the S&D group.

With EU legislation always guided by national interests, cross-border party discipline in parliament is weak. Consensus was needed to produce detailed results in committee.

There, Corbett said, “there will be a coalition sometimes, but you will get it fraying at the edges”. That was evident in the confirmation hearings when, for example, Spanish socialists appeared to vote with the Greens and against the joint EPP-S&D line on the Spanish energy commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete.

Commission plans for a free trade pact with the United States could hit trouble in parliament, Corbett said, as popular disquiet grows over an impact on environment and food standards.

NEW FACES

The more than two dozen three-hour hearings, streamed live online to the public, displayed a familiar mix of arcane debate on legislative detail and political soap-box rhetoric.

Among the most colorful contributions came from some of the substantial new intake of lawmakers elected on a wave of anti-EU sentiment in May. Faces like Bernard Monot of France’s National Front or Steven Woolfe of the UK Independence Party became familiar, though their blunt, hostile questions often seemed to serve to rally the mainstream in the room behind the candidates.

As the Hungarian nominee for education commissioner was struggling to distance himself at his hearing from his role in passing laws the EU found anti-democratic, he won a rare moment of respite when Martin Sonneborn, a German satirist and new MEP, asked whether he would make “Mein Kampf” a set text in schools.

Other lawmakers applauded the candidate’s frosty response.

In contrast, Bernd Lucke, the academic who leads the anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD), secured polite attention for his persistent querying of economic arguments for the currency.

In general, the new parties and faces remained a fringe attraction, few in number and lacking cohesion among themselves.

Nonetheless, Marco Zanni, the 28-year-old who led much of the questioning for the Five Star Movement of Italian comic Beppe Grillo, was encouraged by the way the hearings went.

“Juncker has a majority,” he said. “But it is not very strong and the hearings have been an example of that.”

The breakdown, albeit temporary, of the EPP-S&D alliance, was he said, “an important signal for us, and the Greens and the smaller parties” that it was possible to peel away dissidents.

While agreeing with many in the mainstream parties that some on the radical fringe focus on making a media splash rather than detailed committee work, he said his colleagues were different: “We can have a big influence,” Zanni said, citing among his concerns taxpayer bailouts for badly run banks. “Juncker’s job will be very tough. On some issues, we can create a majority.”

One senior diplomat in Brussels said Juncker’s established relationship with the parliamentary leadership, and apparent determination to coordinate on a leaner legislative agenda, was in his favor: “But it’s obvious,” he said, “That the size and complexity of the parliament makes it less easy to predict.”

Additional reporting by Barbara Lewis and Francesco Guarascio; editing by Anna Willard

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