BRUSSELS – Three new candidates for the European Commission have cleared a first hurdle in their nomination process after lawmakers scrutinizing possible conflicts of interest gave the go-ahead on Tuesday.
The new Commission — the powerful executive arm of the European Union that proposes laws and ensures they are implemented throughout the bloc — was initially scheduled to take office on Nov. 1. But European lawmakers rejected the previous French, Hungarian and Romanian candidates, delaying the whole process.
Thierry Breton, Oliver Várhelyi, and Adina Valean will face three-hour formal hearings later this week before the full Commission, which is now slated to start work on Dec. 1, can be voted in.
In a slap to French President Emmanuel Macron, France's initial nominee Sylvie Goulard was rejected last month over allegations she misused EU funds. The legal committee, which considers conflicts of interest, also refused to give its approval to Rovana Plumb of Romania and Laszlo Trocsanyi of Hungary.
Macron has since replaced Goulard with Breton for the super-sized portfolio overseeing the EU's internal market, industrial policy, defense and the space industry.
Várhelyi has been nominated by incoming Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to oversee enlargement policy while Valean has been endorsed as transport commissioner.
Breton's bid has particularly raised eyebrows because of the 64-year-old businessman's former role as CEO at Atos, a multinational company with activities including big data management and cybersecurity.
Breton, a former French finance minister, has resigned from his position, sold off his shares in Atos and pledged to stay away from decisions that could be taken in relation to his former company. But those guarantees have left many lawmakers unimpressed and his grilling on Thursday does not look like a simple formality.
"It is not a question of judging the competence or good will of Thierry Breton," said the GUE/NGL group, which brings together left-wing lawmakers at the EU Parliament. "But Breton is structurally linked to private interests that could influence his decisions. The simple and strict application of European rules would prevent him from exercising his mandate."
The Greens said they would have liked to receive more clarity "on when and how ... Breton would recuse himself from policy decisions that could benefit Atos or other former employers," while the Social Democrats expressed disappointment at the legal affairs committee's decision to clear the Frenchman without additional questions related to the sale of his Atos shares.
"A candidate who was a CEO of a multinational company only a few weeks ago will now regulate huge sectors of the European economy linked to digital issues, defense and telecommunications," said Tiemo Wölken, the group's coordinator on the legal affairs committee.