Making social science accessible

02 Oct 2019


European Commissioners

Remember those unelected bureaucrats you heard so much about during the referendum campaign?

The faceless Commissioners who will drive forward the EU’s legislative agenda for the next five years?

Well, my job this week and next, together with my colleagues in the European Parliament, is to scrutinise and influence their work programme.

Quite some power for an MEP from the Green group that represents just 10% of the parliament. And their faces have been beamed around Europe on live feed.

As the FT noted, the ‘EU commissioner confirmation hearings and the job interviews are proving far hairier — and bloodier — than any incoming batch of Brussels officials has ever faced.’

As MEPs we are flexing our muscles and making sure we have set the agenda in advance rather than just being critical after the event.

Neither will we hold back in blocking the appointment of Commissioners who fail to meet the high standards expected of such office.

The Parliament’s legal committee has concluded that Romania’s Rovana Plumb, nominated for the transport portfolio, and Hungary’s Laszlo Trocsanyi, nominated to be enlargement Commissioner, are unfit for office due to conflicts of interests.

Yesterday, I was one of the MEPs who questioned the lacklustre Janusz Wojciechowski, the Polish candidate for role of Agriculture Commissioner – who will be responsible for the huge CAP farm support programme that makes up 37% of the EU budget.

He struggled through the hearing, lacking detail and conviction.

Although he said he wholeheartedly agreed with my vision of a European Green Deal for farming, including cutting pesticide use to protect diversity and focusing on using European land as a carbon sink, it was hard to feel convinced he would follow through.

His pledge to challenge the agribusiness corporations who dominate European farming to the detriment of wildlife and farm livelihoods lacked credibility.

The parliamentary groups agreed that we will not confirm him in post and that he will have to come back for further questioning when he will need to provide more detail and demonstrate a sense of leadership.

Next week I will have a chance to question Margrete Vestager, Vice-President designate for a Europe fit for the Digital Age, and one of the most powerful people in the new Commission.

She is the scourge of US tech giants as she has responsibility for enforcing the rules that will govern the digital economy which is, let’s be frank, the economy of the future.

Vestager has been an ally of the Greens in our work against tax avoidance but she needs to go further by ensuring small businesses are not destroyed by the profit shifting of the corporate giants.

How will she do that while continuing to respect the culture of free-market capitalism and opposition from members states defending their own tax havens?

A challenge that only somebody of her calibre could rise to.

Some of the Commissioners are familiar to us in the parliament: I have served on the Economics and Monetary Policy Committee with both Sylvia Goulard, now France’s commissioner designate, and Elisa Ferreira, who has been chosen to represent Portugal.

This shows that in other European countries, governments choose Commissioners who have a deep understanding of the European institutions on the assumption that they might be more effective than a trusted Whitehall civil servant.

Funny that.

Far from taking back control, Johnson has decided to adopt a posture of leaving an empty chair in many EU meetings and to leave our Commission seat entirely vacant.

It is a tragedy that, driven by the Brextremist ideologues in his party, Johnson has wasted the influence a UK Commissioner would have, thus failing to be part of setting the agenda for our closest trading partner for the next five years.

Because the EU is a club of nation states rather than a single political entity, the Commissioners do hold more political power than Whitehall mandarins, which is why most countries send big political hitters to hold the posts.

But they work jointly with the Council rather than simply for their national governments.

And they are by no means independent of Europe’s elected parliament, as this week’s hearings illustrate.

When I scrutinise potential commissioners, I do so on behalf of the five million people I represent in my constituency in the south west.

I would never have comparable power as an MP to interrogate and then vote for or against a British agriculture minister or the Defra Permanent Secretary.

‘Take Back Control’ was a successful and populist soundbite. But it was no more than that.

We can see where this is now leading us – potentially over a cliff face into economic disaster and with our democratic institutions left perilously fragile.

The alternative is to continue with a system, which despite its flaws, sees elected representatives, selected under a system of proportional representation, holding those in positions of power to account. As MEPs we are firmly in control.

By Molly Scott Cato, Green Party MEP for the South West region.


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