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Von der Leyen faces fight to win approval for Brussels team

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Ursula von der Leyen faces a gruelling battle to win MEPs’ backing for her proposed slate of Brussels officials, weakening her position as the next president of the European Commission even before she takes office.

With allegations of financial conflict of interests and fraud investigations hanging over a handful of her nominees, officials expect the toughest examination of any incoming commission — the team that makes up the EU’s executive arm for a five-year term.

A record number of the 27 nominated commissioners could be rejected during confirmatory hearings starting in Brussels this week, with rival political groupings dismissing the idea of a “non-aggression” pact to protect each others’ candidates.

“It will be eye for an eye,” said a parliament official.

The European Parliament has the power to reject incoming commissioners should they find them unfit for office during three-hour confirmation sessions which start on Monday. At the end of the process, MEPs must vote to approve the entire group of commissioners — known as the college — before it takes office on November 1.

Ms von der Leyen has already faced early embarrassment after parliament’s legal affairs committee decided last week that Romania and Hungary’s candidates had financial conflicts of interests that made them unfit to serve as commissioners.

The candidates, Hungary’s former justice minister Laszlo Trocsanyi and Romania’s nominee Rovana Plumb, deny the allegations against them. The legal affairs committee will re-examine the cases on Monday.

If their rejection is confirmed it would force Ms von der Leyen to ask Budapest and Bucharest for new candidates. It would be the first time that prospective commissioners have been ditched before the start of formal hearings.

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Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law and policy at the HEC Paris business school, said there was an “unprecedented politicisation” of the confirmation process.

“This is a mere preview of what the von der Leyen commission will have to go through before being in place, most probably well beyond November 1,” said Mr Alemanno. 

In past nomination cycles it has been common for one commissioner to be rejected. But Ms von der Leyen’s commission is seen as particularly vulnerable because it relies on an untested three-party majority in the European Parliament. She scraped through her own confirmation vote in July with a cushion of just nine votes.

The mainstream conservative, socialist, and liberal groups in the parliament, which together supported Ms von der Leyen, have insisted they will not wave each others’ candidates through the confirmation process.

Hungary’s Mr Trocsanyi was nominated by Viktor Orban’s rightwing Fidesz party, a member of the conservative European People’s party, while Ms Plumb is the pick of Bucharest’s social democrat government, part of the centre-left bloc. Should both candidates fall, officials said liberal nominees from Emmanuel Macron’s “Renew Europe” family will be in the line of fire. 

Sylvie Goulard, France’s pick to be single market commissioner, would be the biggest scalp for the parliament and her loss would be a blow for Mr Macron.

Ms Goulard, a former MEP, is part of a continuing investigation over alleged misuse of European parliamentary cash to fund bogus jobs in her liberal MoDem party in Brussels. The European Parliament closed its investigation into MoDem after Ms Goulard repaid the funds. The European anti-fraud office, Olaf, is still investigating.

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Party officials have warned that without a non-aggression deal, Ms Goulard’s scalp would be a way for MEPs to “hit back” at Mr Macron after he led the charge to block the EPP’s Manfred Weber, a “lead candidate”, to become Mr Juncker’s successor. 

Mr Weber told Le Monde last week that he would make no “a priori judgment” about Ms Goulard but said “she will have to answer questions” about the Olaf investigation.

Last week, Olaf announced it was closing an investigation into Poland’s Janusz Wojciechowski, from the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists, over an MEPs expenses case that had made him a vulnerable candidate. The anti-fraud office said a sum of €11,243 had been unduly paid by the parliament to Mr Wojciechowski and has since been repaid.

Belgian prosecutors on Friday dropped a corruption probe against liberal candidate Didier Reynders, saying they had found no evidence of criminality. He had denied any wrongdoing.

Via Financial Times

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