Rejection of two EC nominees: political takeaways on the new balance of power

The confirmation process of the new College of Commissioners got off to a rocky start, after the Committee on Legal Affairs refused to green-light two Commissioners-designate (Rovana Plumb from Romania - S&D - and László Trócsányi from Hungary - EPP) for alleged conflicts of interest.

This is highly relevant for stakeholders as it showcases how the political battles ahead will look like: 

1) Protection by traditional political families is now less effective

The content of the arguments used for the rejection is, of course, relevant, but since the subject is brought to the interpretation of fellow politicians (as opposed to independent judges), it is difficult to overlook the political considerations of parties. The two nominees are both coming from national governments that have already been in the cross-hairs of EU Parliamentarians during the previous term, mostly due to the rule of law developments within the two countries (for more information about the politicisation of the rule of law debate – check out our previous in-depth report). While the Romanian Social Democratic Party (S&D) and Hungarian Fidesz (EPP) could previously count on the (increasingly lukewarm) protection by their own European political families, this has become less of a guarantee in the much more fragmented European Parliament that resulted from the May 2019 elections.

Since they do not have a majority on their own anymore, EPP and S&D are no longer able to provide mutual insurance that the candidates from their own political families will not be ‘roasted’ in the EP. A trilateral arrangement between political groups is now needed - as a minimum. However, this is far from being an easy feat, since the pressure coming from the hard-liner groups is also increasing, making it more difficult for the centrist groups to strike deals and enforce them.

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2) The European Parliament will provide Ursula von der Leyen with plenty of headaches

The tight EP vote on von der Leyen’s election as EC President was only the first of a long series of parliamentary hurdles that the German politician will have to overcome. Initially, the European Parliament lost the institutional battle with the European Council on the Spitzenkandidaten system, also because several MEPs did not feel like rocking the boat by rejecting the Council’s choices in such a delicate moment for the EU. However, losing a battle is different from losing the war and MEPs are looking for ways to reassert their powers and their relevance in the EU decision-making system.

The increasing unpredictability of the European Parliament (due to the combined trends of fragmentation and polarisation) could actually play to the advantage of MEPs. Since coalition-building is now more difficult, both institutional and non-institutional players will have to pay more attention to (or outright court) MEPs, while the negotiating powers of individual political forces increase. A case in point is that von der Leyen had to reach out to political forces such as the Italian 5 Star Movement and Polish Law and Justice, among others, in order to secure her election.

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3) JURI Committee – which is packed with Germans and French - forces itself into the driving seat

The JURI Committee blocked two nominees even before the dedicated committees got their chance to grill the candidates. As previously mentioned in our special report on the balance of powers within EP committees, the wide remit of the Committee on Legal Affairs provides the MEPs sitting in JURI with the chance to influence several different policy areas. This Committee is likely to play a pivotal role in an increasingly ‘balkanised’ European Parliament.

Quite interestingly, we found that the JURI Committee was among the top choices of German and French MEPs (40% of MEPs sitting in JURI are either German or French). Conversely, only 16% of JURI MEPs are from Central and Eastern Europe (for instance, there are no Polish or Romanian MEPs in the Committee). Given such geographical unbalance, the rejection of the two disputed candidates from Central and Eastern Europe seems less surprising.

Check out our special analysis on EP committees in order to discover 1) the changing balance of power among different EP committees and 2) the top priorities of different national groups.

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4) The rift between East and West is hurting the mainstream groups

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