Before incoming European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen takes over on November 1, MEPs will scrutinise all those nominated to be in her top team. Not only does the parliament get to ask questions, it can also say no to individual commissioners and even the entire team.
The hearings began on Monday afternoon and will last until Tuesday next, October 8, and will involve members of 19 committees in the European Parliament grilling 26 nominees for the European Commission.
The entire process will last a total of 75 hours and is available to view via a live blog podcast. It’s not exactly box office but the lack of spectacle and excitement obscures how much is at stake.
In the five years since the last hearings, the world at large has become a far different, difficult, more competitive and more dangerous place. The challenges are particularly acute for the EU with Brexit, US and Russian hostility, the rise of China and terrorism threatening its cohesion.
Ireland’s EU commissioner Phil Hogan was one of the first nominees out of the starting blocks on Monday night, appearing before a confirmation hearing for the post of trade commissioner. International trade is the one area where the EU can flex some considerable muscle, even without the UK, so Phil Hogan’s portfolio is a key one. At his hearing, Mr Hogan committed to using existing and future trade agreements to advance the EU’s climate and sustainable development goals.
He will have to do a bit more than that if he is to make a success of it. Trade is already a contentious issue and is bound to become even moreso post Brexit, given the UK’s determination to pursue an independent policy. Mr Hogan should also take into account the concerns of EU citizens. A poll earlier this year by CapX, a London based pro-business online journal, showed that a clear majority in member states believe their national governments would do a better job than the EU in representing their country’s interests in international trade negotiations.
Mr Hogan also turned his attention to reforming the World Trade Organisation, saying it was in its “deepest crisis since its creation” and that its dispute resolution mechanism was “falling apart”.
It would be better if he considered more fully the future of the EU which faces its biggest threat since its creation — and it’s not Brexit. Two thirds of Europeans have positive feelings towards the EU, according to Eurobarometer, the highest recorded since 1983. Yet, a recent poll conducted on behalf of the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that a majority of voters fear the EU could collapse in the next 10 to 20 years.
Not only that, but a third of voters in France and Poland and over a quarter of voters in Germany believe that war between EU member states is a “realistic possibility” in the coming decade.
That represents not just an existential threat to the future of the union, but a threat to peace in Europe, something the original iteration of the EU was set up to prevent.