Juncker’s EU commission team set for parliamentary green light

Jean-Claude Juncker’s team of European Union commissioners is poised to win parliamentary approval Wednesday, allowing the handover of EU executive power to take place as scheduled on Nov. 1 amid simmering economic and foreign-policy troubles.

Juncker’s line-up was completed Tuesday when the designated commissioners for energy-policy coordination and transport — Slovakia’s Maros Sefcovic and Slovenia’s Violeta Bulc — were given passing marks for their performances in European Parliament confirmation hearings. The full assembly is due to give its verdict on the whole new 28-member European Commission around midday in Strasbourg, France.

President-elect Juncker was forced to shuffle his team last week after Alenka Bratusek, Slovenia’s original nominee to the commission, withdrew following her rejection for the energy- union job because of a lackluster showing in her hearing. He gave Bulc, Slovenia’s subsequent nominee, the transport portfolio originally assigned to Sefcovic and moved Sefcovic to the energy vice-presidency post.

“The Parliament made its point by demanding a minor change rather than shaking up the team, so it’s no surprise the new commission is on track to get approved,” Sonia Piedrafita, an analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said by telephone. The new commission under Juncker, who was Luxembourg’s prime minister for almost two decades until late 2013, is slated to serve a five-year term.

Unfinished business

Juncker’s team will face new tests and unfinished business after the 10-year reign of Portugal’s Jose Barroso atop the commission, the EU executive arm that proposes and enforces European laws, monitors national economies, negotiates trade deals, runs a diplomatic service and administers the bloc’s 140 billion-euro ($178 billion) budget.

Barroso spent his first term absorbing countries in former communist eastern Europe into the EU and positioning the bloc as a leader in the fight against global warming. He spent his second term battling the sovereign-debt debt crisis that threatened to break apart the euro.

“These have been exceptional and challenging times,” Barroso told the EU Parliament Tuesday in what was due to be his last address to the assembly. “This crisis was probably the biggest since the beginning of the European integration process in the ’50s.”

Along with a pace of EU enlargement that has boosted membership to 28 nations from 15 over the past decade, the financial crisis has led to a surge in anti-European parties across Europe. This protest trend in nations including the UK, France, Italy and Greece has challenged a longstanding pro-EU consensus, adding political uncertainty to European economic management and business regulation.

Imminent test

Juncker’s incoming commission faces an imminent test over applying EU budget-discipline rules to France, which is struggling to bring its deficit within the bloc’s limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product as a result of economic sluggishness. The euro area beefed up its fiscal-prudence rulebook at Germany’s insistence during the debt crisis, providing a basis for more squabbles between the stick-to- austerity and go-for-growth camps.

The spotlight on France’s public spending will be even greater because the designated EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs is Pierre Moscovici, a former French finance minister. His appointment as EU economy czar ruffled some German feathers.

Greece, which triggered the European debt crisis in 2009, will also preoccupy the Juncker commission because the country wants to exit its international rescue program at the end of 2014 — more than a year ahead of schedule — after being forced to enact budget cuts that deepened a six-year Greek recession.

UK politics

UK politics promises to intrude on the work of the new commission because of British Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to win back powers from the EU and, if re-elected next year, to hold an in-or-out referendum on the country’s membership of the bloc.

Juncker has said he wants the UK to stay in the EU and has promised the country a “fair deal” on the question of repatriating powers. Acknowledging the importance of London’s banking industry and seeking to blunt anti-EU feelings in Britain, he appointed the UK’s nominee to the new commission, Jonathan Hill, as European financial-services commissioner.

The Kremlin’s encroachment in eastern Ukraine, coupled with the threat of more EU sanctions against Russia and of disruptions of Russian natural-gas supplies, will keep the jobs of European foreign-policy chief and energy commissioner in the limelight. Italy’s Federica Mogherini is due to succeed the UK’s Catherine Ashton as the chief EU diplomat, while Spain’s Miguel Arias Canete will follow Germany’s Guenther Oettinger in the energy post, which will be combined with the climate- protection portfolio.

Trade agreement

A planned EU-US trade agreement that would expand what is already the world’s biggest economic relationship will top the commercial agenda of the new commission. Keeping those negotiations on track will be the job of Sweden’s Cecilia Malmstroem, the designated EU trade commissioner who also will have to steer through the final approval stages a landmark commercial pact with Canada struck by the departing Karel De Gucht of Belgium.

The outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in west Africa will occupy the next commissioner for international humanitarian aid and crisis management, the Cypriot nominee Christos Stylianides, who has pledged to visit the African countries at the center of the health scare.

Closer to home, handling a lengthy EU antitrust probe of U.S.-based global technology company Google Inc. will fall to Denmark’s Margrethe Vestager, due to succeed Spain’s Joaquin Almunia as European competition commissioner. [Bloomberg]

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