In October the various Committees of the European Parliament auditioned the Commissioners-designate, which were appointed by President-elected Ursula von der Leyen on the basis of the Member States’ nominees. Each candidate, according to his or her portfolio, had to answer the written questions posed by the related Committee on the portfolio and the mission within the Commission. Of the 26 Commissioners-designate, the Committees have blocked three of them: Sylvie Goulard, the French candidate for the internal market portfolio; Rovana Plumb, the transport candidate from Romania; and László Trócsányi, who was nominated for neighborhood and enlargement by Hungary.
At that point, the Member States involved had to provide President elect von der Leyen with the names of new candidates. Last week, on 14th November, the selected candidates were auditioned by the Legal affairs and other relevant committees. The portfolios assigned to the Member States stayed the same: Thierry Breton (internal market), Olivér Várhelyi (neighbourhood and enlargement) and Adina-Ioana Vălean (transport). The new Commissioners-designate have been approved by the parliamentary committees and will face, together with the whole College, the vote of the Parliament during the plenary session on 27th November. If confirmed, the new Commission will take office on 1st December, with only a one-month delay on the initial schedule.
But when the problems seemed to be solved, with the impasse of the Commissioners-designate overcome, another issue landed on the table of the President-elect: the “flextension” of Brexit. Indeed, Boris Johnson demanded the Council for an additional period to make the UK Parliament ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. This because the deal that Johnson agreed with the outgoing Commission was first approved by the UK Parliament with a very slight majority, but then the ratification process was blocked. Therefore, the UK could not leave the EU on 31st October as planned and PM Johnson had to ask for an extension, which was granted by the European Council. At the same time, he decided to call elections for 12th December, trying to increase Conservative seats in the UK Parliament in order to smoothen the ratification process of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Should the agreement successfully take all the hurdles, an orderly Brexit would materialize on 31st January 2020. According to EU law, each Member State sends a Commissioner to Brussels. For this reason, the President elect von der Leyen invited the UK government to propose a candidate EU Commissioner, contrarily from the original plans that foresaw the UK leaving the EU before the new Commission took office. Nevertheless, the UK government did not answer to the request of President elect von der Leyen, arguing that the UK is not in the position to suggest a candidate at the moment. Indeed, both the government and the opposition have just started their electoral campaigns and are continuing the battle between Leavers and Remainers at the Parliament. Therefore, the Commission has launched an infringement procedure against the UK to which the latter is invited to respond or, eventually, advance a candidate for the Commission by Friday 22nd. The Commission invoked the legal obligation of a member state not to call for provisions prevailing in its domestic legal system as a justification for failing to observe the Union law.
In conclusion, we still do not know if the UK will have a Commissioner in the von der Leyen’s College, due to the tight deadline for the presentation of a candidate and his or her approval by the parliamentary committees before the vote in the plenary. This said, von der Leyen could ask for a further delay in taking office with her College, in order to give the UK the time to propose a candidate after the elections. Or, she could start working with the 26 Commissioners and hope that the new UK Parliament will ratify the Withdrawal Agreement by the end of January. In that case, there would be no reason to have a UK Commissioner, just for a couple of months, but it is likely von der Leyen would try to respect her role of “Guardian of the Treaties”.
By Silvia De Iacovo, ABBL & ALFI European Affairs