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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 October, 2004, 13:38 GMT 14:38 UK
Brussels inquisition for commissioners

By Angus Roxburgh
BBC News, Brussels

Becoming a European Commissioner is no fun.

New EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson
Mandelson faces tough battles as trade negotiator
It's not just a case of being nominated by your national government, searching for a luxury pad in Brussels, and sitting back to enjoy your 18,000 euros a month for the next five years.

This week and last the 24 commissioners-designate have been facing three-hour public interrogations by members of the European Parliament, who often give the impression that they, not the Commission, should be running Europe.

Being put on the spot, for three hours with no break, live before TV cameras and being questioned about the fine detail of complex EU policies is a gruelling experience.

Many acquitted themselves admirably. Beads of sweat notwithstanding, they proved themselves competent and highly qualified for their jobs.

One Dutch MEP judged the performance of Peter Mandelson, who will become trade commissioner, "amazing".

During his interrogation Mr Mandelson rashly offered to meet the same MEPs, from the international trade committee, whenever they wished, to consult with them and answer their questions.

But at the end he looked around, forehead glistening with perspiration, and asked: "Is this what it's always like?"


His job representing the EU in international trade negotiations is, as he acknowledged, a big one - bigger than any ministerial post he had held in the UK.

European Union commissioner-designate for Competition Neelie Kroes
Kroes had to cut off all her links with the corporate world

The same goes for many of his colleagues - even some who have been prime ministers of small countries, and will now be running major departments on behalf of 450 million people.

Margot Wallstrom, the personable Swedish commissioner currently in charge of the environment, will have the task of devising the Commission's communications strategy.

She got the thumbs-up from all the male members of her committee, who felt there could be no person better suited to improving the Commission's public image. Most of the female MEPs felt she also spoke a lot of sense.

There have been moments of humour.

Guenter Verheugen, the German who will be in charge of enterprise and industry, has been accused of being "Berlin's poodle" because of his keenness (in his current role as enlargement commissioner) to begin accession negotiations with Turkey.

"A poodle," he said, "is a very smart animal and some would even say that it is a very beautiful one."

Peering myopically through his thick round spectacles, he added: "I didn't hear that description too often myself."


But there have also been moments of tension.

Neelie Kroes was visibly upset during her appearance. The Dutchwoman who will run the Commission's powerful competition department, vetting corporate mergers and takeovers, was harangued by her fellow-countryman Paul van Buitenen.

Mr van Buitenen, a former Commission employee and now an MEP, achieved fame with a dossier of fraud allegations which helped to bring down the last-but-one Commission in 1999.

Now, looking for more red meat, he tore into Ms Kroes over alleged improprieties during her time as Dutch transport minister.

She should, he said, face criminal investigations on no fewer than 18 counts.

EU commissioners-designate stand together with European Commission President  Jose Manuel Durao Barroso (3rd left in front row)
The new team is expected to be given the green light next month

She retorted that this was "character assassination".

Other MEPs questioned her impartiality, as she had held - right up until taking on her new post - directorships in several major companies.

This, Ms Kroes said, would in no way undermine her impartiality, making her merely "knowledgeable" about the business, in the same way that a good football referee is passionate about the game.

Socialist MEPs accused her of being "vague and evasive" in her answers, but distanced themselves from Mr van Buitenen's allegations of criminality, saying that if there was proof it should be made public.

MEPs flex muscles

Parliament will vote for the entire commission en bloc, so there is no formal way for MEPs to reject individual commissioners. If there were, Ms Kroes might have a hard time holding on to her post.

But those who have failed to come up to scratch have been asked to provide additional information before the vote later this month.

It is in theory possible for MEPs to ask the Commission President, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso either to reshuffle his team or even go back to a member state to nominate someone else.

This is highly unlikely to happen, but it would be wrong to say the hearings have been a formality.

They have put the prospective commissioners under very close scrutiny - and tested them microscopically on their abilities and personal integrity.

MEPs have been particularly concerned to establish whether each new Commissioner is really "European", and willing to stand up if necessary against their own national governments in the interests of the EU.

If the new team has learned anything from the experience, it is that they will earn their money the hard way, with whole teams of experienced and hawk-eyed parliamentarians watching their every move.

The BBC's Emma Jane Kirby
"Either the whole team gets the green light or the whole team is rejected out of hand"

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