UPDATES Team Ursula: the hearings begin with MEP grillings

UPDATES Team Ursula: the hearings begin with MEP grillings
By Joanna GillIsabel Silva, Ana Lazaro, Greg Lory, Jack Parrock, Elena Cavallone, Paula Sendin, Meabh Mc Mahon
Share this articleComments
Share this articleClose Button

This week Brussels Bureau brings you all the latest on the hearings for Team Ursula. New updates every day.


Welcome to the beginning of Team Ursula, the first challenge facing the new batch of Commissioners will be a grilling by MEPs.

The hearings start on September 30 and run over 6 days and at span across at least 21 committees. Each candidate will face three hours of questioning.

Below we look at who are the ones to watch, and some of the problems following them into the hearings.

Controversies have followed several nominees, and notably the Romanian and Hungarian candidates have been twice rejected by the Legal Affairs committee even before they made an appearance at the European parliament.

Check back in daily for new updates.


The first to face MEPs are the old faces of the Commission. All three are outgoing members, so unlikely to face much resistance.

Hogan - Trade - Ireland

Sampling milk at agricultural trade shows– part of the role of the EU's farm Commissioner for the past five years. Irish man, Phil Hogan, centre-right politician, known around Europe as a straight-talker and for being one of the tallest guys in town.

The 59 year-old booked a one-way ticket to Brussels five years ago, pleased to leave Ireland during a water charges controversy that his name was affiliated with. In EU circles, he is hailed for his role in the EU-Japan trade deal and for boosting European food around the world. But farmers don't forgive him his handling of the milk crisis back and are deeply concerned the Mercusor trade deal.

Hogan has no desire to pack up just yet. He has his eye on a new job as the EU trade Commissioner. But before he signs his new job contract that comes with 22,000 EURO a month, he needs the green light from MEPs. If successful, the arch critic of Brexit and close ally of Michel Barnier would be the man in charge of any future EU/UK trade deal in what would be a huge coup for Ireland. Euronews reporter Meabh Mc Mahon will be following his progress.

Day 1 turmoil

Both Romania's and Hungary's picks for the Commission have been rejected. The Hungarian nominee who had been handed the Enlargement portfolio slammed the decision of the Legal Affairs Committee, after they rejected his candidacy, saying:


Six candidates will be questioned. Nicolas Schmit (Luxembourg) on Jobs, Jutta Urpilainen (Finland) for International Partnerships, Ylva Johansson (Sweden) for Home Affairs, Stella Kyriakides (Cyprus) for Health and Janusz Wojciechowski (Poland) for Agriculture. We take a closer look at the man who could be in charge of the future of farming.

Wojciechowski - Agriculture - Poland

Janusz Wojciechowski has based his political career on agricultural issues. It is therefore natural that the Pole should inherit the portfolio of Agriculture within the next European Commission. First of all, a member of the Polish peasant party before joining the ultraconservatives of the Law and Justice party, he sat for almost 12 years in the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament, of which he was one of the vice-presidents. However, his detractors believe that he is only passionate about two topics: animal welfare and the harmonization of support between old and new member countries.His next mission will be to finalize the reform of the CAP, the Common Agricultural Policy. The Poles will also have to make changes within the limits of the environmental pact pledged by the new president. Ursula von der Leyen wants the sector to become more climate friendly.

Day 2 troubles

Poland's Janusz Wojciechowski needs to go into overtime after his hearing. MEPs have accused him of delivering a lackluster performance. The agriculture portfolio candidate is now asked to answer a round of written questions. Wojciechowski at times strained to find the right words in English and remained vague on a number of issues. If his written answers are still considered inadequate, he could face abother 90 minute grilling.

A rough ride also for Sweden's nominee Ylva Johansson, slated to become the Home Affairs Commissioner. One centre right MEP calling her the ‘come-back commissioner,’ she said she needed to come back to them on a number of answers. The veteran Swedish minister stumbled on migration and MEPs thought policy plans were without detail. She'll submit written questions as well.

Wednesday 2 October

Five potentials will be grilled, from neighbouring countries - Belgium and France and from the south Malta, Portugal, Slovenia. We took a look at the hopes some activists have for the Commissioner-designate for Equality Helena Dalli. She could be Malta's first female commissioner.

Goulard - Internal Market - France

Sylvie Goulard is a regular in the European corridors. The Frenchwoman will be in charge of the Internal Market with another attribution industrial policy and the digital market. She will also lead the new Directorate-General for the Defense and Space Industry, a project wanted by France and Germany. This senior official began her career in the institutions in 2001 as advisor to the President of the European Commission, the Italian Romano Prodi. It was in 2009 that she launched herself into the political arena as a MEP. During her 8 years in the hemicycle she focused mainly on economic issues. Macronist from the first hour (early rally to Emmanuel Macron) and ephemeral Minister of the Armed Forces in 2017, this polyglot has a CV cut for the Commission. But there are two shadows on Sylvie Goulard's painting. She is quoted in a fictitious jobs in the European Parliament and her activity as an adviser to a US think tank raises ethical issues.

Reynders - Justice - Belgium

A veteran Belgian politician, Didier Reynders - en route to being appointed to occupy the Justice Portfolio in the Ursula Von Der Leyen Commission. He'll take over from the Dutchman Frans Timmermans to deal with European justice issues, including work on the rule of law- a cause of major conflict with populist governments in eastern EU countries. He was Finance Minister at the time the euro was launched in Belgium and until 2019 he served as a member of the Belgian Prime Minister's government, the liberal Charles Michel. In June, he lost his candidacy to become secretary-general of the Council of Europe the Continent's leading human rights body. He was, until few day ago, one of the controversial nominees. The former Belgian Foreign Affairs minister was investigated for corruption and money laundering by a Belgian prosecutor, which was dropped just in time for his hearing.


Day 3 hiccups

Don't you think yourself that you are questionable on this? You have the OLAF case pending and a pending case in France, you have even paid back 40.000 euros. Don't you think it is worth questioning whether you are questionable

At the center of the attention: the French nominee Sylvie Goulard, handpicked by President Emmanuel Macron. Slated to become the next internal market commissioner, Goulard is a controversial figure, given her murky history over the misuse of public funds.

Goulard was severely grilled by members of the European Parliament whose questions were more about her personal integrity than the intricacies of industrial policy.

"Don't you think yourself that you are questionable on this? You have the OLAF case pending and a pending case in France, you have even paid back 40.000 euros. Don't you think it is worth questioning whether you are questionable? asked MEP Christel Schaldemose (Denmark).

"I'm not indicted. I can't prejudge the outcome of a procedure, obviously. It is up to the judiciary. I believe that an accurate presentation of the facts is needed, an accurate presentation of French law, and, above all,I ask you all, a very high respect for the presumption of innocence," Goulard replied.


Other nominees had a much smoother sailing, notably Belgium's long-time foreign minister Didier Reynders, the pick for justice commissioners. Reynders denied recent money laundering allegations against him, saying that prosecutors had cleared him entirely.

Other nominees, like Helena Dalli from Malta and Elisa Ferreira from Portugal, made it through their hearings without major hiccups.

Thursday 3 October

Another six face the test - Italy, Austria, Greece, Croatia, Lithuania, Estonia. We take a look at the nominee with the portfolio attracting the most controversy.

Schinas - Protecting our European Way of Life

For five years, he was the man behind Jean-Claude Juncker - his master's voice, the chief spokesman of the European Commission: Margaritis Schinas from Greece. For Brussels journalists and TV audiences across Europe, Schinas is a familiar face. And when Ursula von der Leyen entrusted him to be Commissioner for the Protection of Our European Way of Life, he immediately became the center of a political controversy. Now he needs all his considerable ability to put some spin on it. Schinas respected the media, but could be sharp-tongued, as some journalists have learned. He is a veteran of EU affairs. He has been a public servant in the European Commission since 1990, interrupted only by a brief stint as member of the European Parliament from 2007 to 2009.


Day 4 misgivings

What he said about Protecting our European Way of life:

"(It's) against those who do not allow us to celebrate Quatorze Juillet in Nice; against those who do not allow us to walk in Ramblas in Barcelona; against those who, instead of helping migrants, tackle them in a camp; against those who do not give food to asylum seekers; against those who do not allow their children to go to school; against all these elements, that we think can be addressed positively through an inclusive approach to who we are and what we stand for."

Our Greek correspondent, Efi Koutsokosta:

"Commissioner-designate Schinas was well prepared and ready to answer even the most harsh questions. Most of them, as expected, concerned the name of his portfolio 'Protection of the European Way of Life'. He defended the name, while sending a clear message, saying that it's populists and extremists are the ones who should feel intimidated by our values and not us. All that's left to see now is whether the MEPs will make Ursula von der Leyen change the portfolio name or at least add something to it."


Monday 7 October

One outgoing commissioner, and one familiar face. The Czech commissioner Vera Jourova will change portfolio from Justice, Consumer and Gender issues to jointly policing Rule of Law (with Reynders). The Spanish commissioner in line to become Foreign Policy chief, Josep Borrell already has an EU pedigree as former European Parliament President 2004-2007 and faces questions in the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Borrell - Foreign Affairs - Spain

Josep Borrell has been nominated to lead European diplomacy. At 72, the current Spanish foreign minister has a long political career. He was forged as a minister with Felipe González (in the 90s) and landed in Europe as president of the European Parliament. Default: he tends to say what he thinks

He treated Russia as an "old enemy" and has said that Washington acts in Venezuela as a "cowboy." Here's what he said about the independence of the United States:

"It was born practically without history. All they did was kill four Indians."

He will have to face burning issues such as relations with China, Iran or the United States. More complicated will be to manage relations with the Balkans, since Spain has never recognized the independence of Kosovo. As a Catalan, he has advocated against independence. What has earned him some enmity. But in that, European, has always supported Spain.


More controversial is the fine of 30,000 euros that he had to pay for using privileged information in the sale of some shares.

Day 5 - hurdles

Sylvie Goulard having to walk the extra mile - after a tough grilling by the European Parliament last week, the French Commissioner-designate for the internal market was given one more chance: answer a set of written questions or else. The deadline is Tuesday. After that, the committee will vote again. If it fails to reach a two-thirds majority, a new hearing will be held on Thursday (10 October).

Janusz Wojciechowski, the Polish candidate for EU agriculture Commissioner, had his last-chance hearing on Tuesday. The written answers that he provided failed to bring the committee on his side. But in his second hearing he won over MEPs.

Tuesday 8 October

The heavy hitters take their turn. The outgoing commissioners from Denmark, the Netherlands and Latvia have had their portfolios switched up, but are critical elements of Team Ursula.


First up is Valdis Dombrovkis, who will be Economy Chief, tasked with reforming the eurozone.

Later on Tuesday, the Dane who made a name for herself fighting Silicon Valley giants Margrete Vestager will now be in charge of making 'Europe fit for the Digital Age'.

Frans Timmermans will take on the mammoth task of delivering on green goals.

Vestager - Digital Chief - Denmark

President Donald Trump called her "the tax lady that hates the US" and he might expect more tough decisions from Margrethe Vestager. She will retain the Competition portfolio if she gets confirmation as the Executive Vice-President for the Digital Age.

In the last five years, the determination of Danish liberal politician to apply multi billion euros' worth fines to multinationals, especially in the technological industry, earned her the dislike of powerful leaders and CEOs but also the admiration from many others.


Despite that performance and her previous experience as minister for Economic Affairs and for Interior, Vestager lost the race to become president of the European Commission, last may.

But the European Council made a point of designating her as one of the Vice-presidents, when they chose Ursula von de Leyen for the top job.

Coordinating work on areas such as big data, artificial intelligence and digital services, the "tax lady" will shape a policy with big economic and social impacts for Europe, both internally and as a global power.

Timmermans - Green Deal - Netherlands

Riding into one of the most senior positions in Europe, most likely on two-wheels. The climate conscious socialist Dutchman Frans Timmermans will lead the flagship policy of the incoming European Commission.

His exact title: Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal. The next Commisison president Ursula von der Leyen has made him her number two. A position he knows well - having been the first vice president of the outgoing Juncker commission.


Before Brussels, as Dutch foreign minister, he garnered international attention with a passionate UN security council speech after the downing of MH17 in 2014 killing 193 of his countrymen.

"Did they lock hands with their loved ones...did they hold their children close to their hearts..."

The 58 year-old from Maastricht wanted to take the Commission's helm this time around.

As socialist candidate to become president in last May's European elections he even seemed close at one point.

Day 6 outcomes

Share this articleComments

You might also like

Ireland's first female Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly on democracy and transparency within the EU

Belgium investigating Russian influence network suspected of paying EU lawmakers

With third-party litigation funding on the rise, courts are becoming a venue for politics