It’s the theatrical run everyone had been waiting for. Well, everyone in the Brussels bubble. Maybe.
Over the past couple of weeks, aspiring European commissioners have been putting on a series of one-woman and one-man shows at the European Parliament. Their aim: to convince MEPs that they deserve a five-year run on the Brussels stage.
So who won over the audience and the critics in their confirmation hearings? Who was more “meh” than megastar? And who had the punters reaching for the rotten fruit?
POLITICO watched every performance (so normal people didn’t have to) and the reviews are in.
Frans Timmermans (Executive Vice President for the European Green Deal, Netherlands)
High point: Timmermans’ rendition of a snippet of poetry from Edwin James Milliken to liken the Earth’s climate trajectory to that of a man who falls asleep while driving a train — a rather dramatic end to the hearing. “For the pace is hot, and the points are near, and sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear; and signals flash through the night in vain. Death is in charge of the clattering train!”
Low point: The largely polished Timmermans flubbed in a couple policy areas that did not go unnoticed by MEPs — he erroneously suggested the EU’s Emissions Trading System did not cover aviation and was accused of dodging questions on agriculture.
Key quote: “It’s absolutely clear there’s no future in coal.”
Verdict: Akin to a well-produced documentary. Timmermans charmed MEPs with his linguistic skills, made some firm policy pledges and kept the drama to a minimum.
Rating (out of 5): 1/2
Didier Reynders (Justice, Belgium)
High point: Reynders championed the rule of law and consumers. He pleased many MEPs by pledging to push hard for an answer from the Council on a controversial proposal that would allow groups of consumers to sue companies and seek compensation.
Low point: MEPs tried to push Reynders on domestic allegations of corruption but he stuck to his lawyer-approved boilerplate answer and denied all allegations. “This person publicly stated he wanted to stop me from becoming European commissioner,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish on anybody what my family, my spouse, those close to me had to experience.”
Key quote: “We need to ask more and more information on the algorithms” — promising to open the black box of artificial intelligence.
Plot twist: The lights went out in the middle of the hearing, forcing everyone to move two floors up. The ushers got a huge round of applause for preparing a new room within 20 minutes.
Verdict: Solid all-round performance. Didn’t get into trouble, dodged domestic allegations successfully and smoothly handled questions ranging from consumer rights to rule of law, and from data protection to AI.
Stella Kyriakides (Health, Cyprus)
High point: A breast cancer survivor and former president of a breast cancer patients group, Kyriakides got into the weeds on cancer prevention methods as she called for “all hands on deck” to beat the disease.
Low point: “I’m trying to understand why I haven’t been convincing on pesticides,” Kyriakides said after fielding five questions on the topic.
Key quote: “In no way do I underestimate the effect that pesticides have on health, and it would be unheard of to be health commissioner and not to take this on.”
Verdict: Though MEPs were, indeed, unconvinced by what she said on pesticides, they soaked up Kyriakides’ expertise on health — especially given that her hearing was immediately after Polish nominee Janusz Wojciechowski’s first, bumbling performance.
Phil Hogan (Trade, Ireland)
High point: Hogan won spontaneous applause from across the political spectrum after a hearing in which he ticked all the boxes: He knew the MEPs and the subjects that mattered to them. He had the talking points to address each major political group’s priorities.
Low point: He kept getting his future boss’s name wrong: He talked about a certain “Mrs. van der Leyen.” He also ducked questions on how he planned to enforce environmental and labor rights chapters in trade agreements.
Key quote: “Europe has to stand up for itself.”
Verdict: Hogan was well-prepared. It was clear that he was not on the parliamentarians’ hit list.
Helena Dalli (Equality, Malta)
High point: Dalli quickly shot down an MEP from the far-right ID group, who suggested that allowing people to “choose” their gender would allow people to “cheat” sporting rules. “Gender reassignment is certainly not a walk in the park,” Dalli said to applause.
Low point: Dalli didn’t reply directly to a question about whether she was satisfied with the public inquiry set up last month by the Maltese government to look into the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.
Key quote: “The 21st century must be the century of women being equal.”
Verdict: Dalli’s strong and personal testimony impressed MEPs and within hours it was clear she had the necessary majority to be confirmed.
Virginijus Sinkevičius (Environment & Oceans, Lithuania)
High point: “For us 2050 is not just a target on a piece of paper, we have to live it,” the 28-year-old nominee said of the lofty goal of reaching climate neutrality by mid-century.
Low point: May regret overpromising. He pledged a non-toxic environment strategy that “needs to go beyond” what the outgoing Commission proposed and an update of air pollution standards in line with World Health Organization recommendations. Those would need the approval of the entire College of Commissioners — no easy task for a newbie.
Key quote: “This mandate will be the greenest that Europe has ever seen.”
Verdict: Smooth sailing. Sinkevičius was well prepared, often citing facts and figures, and his bold ambitions impressed MEPs. Within hours they gave him the green light.
Elisa Ferreira (Cohesion & Reforms, Portugal)
High point: Ferreira decided to address concerns about potential conflicts of interest head-on. She said she’d abstain from EU funding decisions which could directly or indirectly impact the personal interests of her husband, who works for a regional development body.
Low point: Couldn’t give a clear answer on where the money will come from for a Just Transition Fund, meant to ease the move to green energy for countries heavily dependent on fossil fuels.
Key quote: “You will be hearing from us soon, with a Commission proposal in the first 100 days” on that transition fund.
Verdict: Ferreira’s hearing ended with a long round of applause from MEPs from across the political spectrum, showing she enjoys broad support. She may not have had all the answers but they liked her nonetheless.
Maroš Šefčovič (Vice President for Interinstitutional relations & Foresight, Slovakia)
High point: “As an expert on foresight, you already know what I’m going to say … What will I have for dinner?” asked Green MEP Nico Semsrott, a satirist by profession. “It’s true, some of my colleagues have been asking me if I can tell them what will be the next Lotto numbers,” Šefčovič quipped back.
Low point: Šefčovič struggled to defend his boss Ursula von der Leyen’s plan for a “one in, one out” policy to limit the volume of EU legislation — something MEPs said could reduce consumer and environmental protections. “The European Union isn’t a nightclub,” German MEP Tiemo Wölken said.
Key quote: Šefčovič pledged a “special partnership” with the European Parliament that includes “a new right of initiative, which I know is very important for you.”
Verdict: A smooth opening act in which Šefčovič made sure to hit the right notes to fuel Parliament’s ambitions.
Paolo Gentiloni (Economy, Italy)
High point: “I shall defend to the hilt the cause of Europe,” the former Italian prime minister said in closing remarks that put an exclamation point on his overall approach: show gravitas and present himself as someone able to put aside nationality.
Low point: Asked about his assets — property including four apartments plus €620,000 of securities — Gentiloni turned slightly defensive, perhaps not in tone but in words. “I wasn’t rich by any means,” he said and offered a joke that didn’t quite land about how Italian media had inflated his holdings into “the portfolio of a millionaire.” But he said he’d sold off his stocks, which had included more than €100,000 in Amazon shares.
Key quote: “I want to be very clear on this, crystal clear, if possible. I’m not and I will not be the representative of a single government in the Commission.”
Verdict: Put the issue of national loyalties to bed from the start, with a mix of high rhetoric about European ideals and some skillful bureaucratic misdirection. Also showed a deft hand in signaling to both sides of Europe’s north-south divide, calling for a shared unemployment program while pledging no “permanent transfer from country to country” of funds.
Nicolas Schmit (Jobs, Luxembourg)
High point: Schmit assured Nordic MEPs that a minimum wage framework he plans to put forward “rapidly” won’t undermine their collective bargaining systems.
Low point: British MEP Matthew Patten accused Schmit of failing to address discrimination in the labor market. The bloc’s motto may as well be, “united in diversity, as long as you’re white,” Patten said.
Key quote: “No country should be allowed to use social dumping for its own workers. That flies in the face of the European spirit.”
Verdict: For Schmit, a longtime employment minister turned MEP in Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, this was an easy home game.
Jutta Urpilainen (International Partnerships, Finland)
High point: “Eradication of poverty is at the center of our work,” Urpilainen told legislators. That likely came as a relief to many development advocates, who fear development funding will be hijacked for other policy priorities, such as migration.
Low point: There wasn’t really one in what was a low-key hearing.
Key quote: “I see that we need to invest more in Africa, and we need to have [the] private sector to be part of that approach.”
Verdict: The former Finnish finance minister flew through her friendly hearing, finishing half an hour ahead of time.
Margaritis Schinas (Vice President for Protecting our European Way of Life, Greece)
High point: Schinas deftly deflected concerns about his job title. After three hours of questions, it was even a subject for humor. Juan Fernando López Aguilar, who co-chaired the hearing, joked that “working this late is definitely not in line with the European way of life.”
Low point: For those who tuned in for answers on the EU’s plans to fight disinformation and digital threats, Schinas’ hearing was a disappointment — with no mention of fighting hybrid threats, cybercrime or other security threats.
Key quote: “The job I am entrusted to do is one that has never existed before. It is a new job,” Schinas said. “Although the job is new, the problems are old, and they are deeply rooted.”
Verdict: Smooth operation. All the communication skills of the Commission’s former chief spokesman were deployed to defuse arguments over his job title and win confirmation.
Middle of the road
Johannes Hahn (Budget & Administration, Austria)
High point: Auditioning for his third term as a commissioner, Hahn made the most of his strong relationships with MEPs, noting many in the room already have his mobile number.
Low point: He struggled to answer the question of how the new Commission will finance its ambitious policy pledges, in particular on climate.
Key quote: “It would be not serious if I give you a promise about a certain percentage,” Hahn told MEPs when discussing the size of the future EU budget. Not a great soundbite but smart — as that figure will be the subject of bitter debate among member countries.
Verdict: MEPs were not always convinced by Hahn’s replies, but were nonetheless impressed by his years of experience, directness and knowledge of topic area.
Josep Borrell (EU high representative for foreign affairs, Spain)
High point: (For Borrell, anyway. Not for Parliament as a watchdog.) Getting a round of applause for stopping to drink some coffee before giving his closing statement.
Low point: Coming under repeated questioning over his financial affairs, including a fine for insider trading. Borrell repeatedly insisted he had not deliberately done anything wrong and suggested the timing of the controversial share sale was an unfortunate accident.
Key quote: “I believe that borders are the scars that history left engraved on the skin of the earth, has etched with blood and fire, and that the progress of humanity consists in overcoming borders.”
Verdict: As a former president of the Parliament, Borrell was always unlikely to face a rough ride. Assured but not dazzling display.
Margrethe Vestager (Executive Vice President for Europe fit for the digital age, Denmark)
High point: When told by Brexit Party MEP John Tennant that he was looking forward to Britain’s departure from the EU so the country could gain greater sovereignty (particularly over its tax dealings) but that she should “carry on,” Vestager quipped: “I don’t share your views, but I appreciate your good wishes.”
Low point: Vestager did not provide convincing replies to MEPs asking about how she would manage her two hats, as executive vice president for digital affairs and also competition chief. There are worries she can’t be Europe industry’s coach and referee at the same time. She kept repeating that “the independence in law enforcement is non-negotiable,” but conceded the issue would require “some care.”
Key quote: “I will do my best in the second season.” (In a reference to the hit Danish political TV drama “Borgen,” which she reportedly inspired.)
Verdict: Good but not wow. Vestager is barely changing portfolio and she already had first-hand experience of what confirmation hearings are all about. Not a standout performance from the nominee — or her remarkably tame audience.
Věra Jourová (Vice President for Values and Transparency, Czech Republic)
High point: Striking a balance between the work of the current Commission on rule of law and making clear she’d do things her own way. Managed to pay respect to current rule-of-law supremo while also making clear she wouldn’t just be Timmermans II.
Low point: Jourová struggled with questions about threats to journalists coming from their own national governments inside the EU, admitting that there’s not much the Commission can do to help: “This is a very difficult question, and I will not pretend that the European Union is equipped with strong legislative or executive power in these cases.”
Key quote: Pledging to make tech platforms more accountable for the content they carry. “The e-commerce directive is still a very strong legislation, which says that platforms are not responsible for the content … And we will have to look at this to see if we need a stronger push to increase the responsibility,” she said. “I am convinced that we need such a push.”
Verdict: The veteran commissioner’s performance, in which she also struggled to keep to time, did not wow those expecting more innovative and substantive ideas on improving transparency, protecting European democracy and enforcing the rule of law.
Valdis Dombrovskis (Executive Vice President for an Economy that Works for People, Latvia)
High point: Dombrovskis delivered a clear pledge to introduce legislation for the virtual currency backed by Facebook — calling out Libra by name, with no hedging about commissioning studies, convening expert panels or plotting roadmaps.
Low point: Right-wing Slovak MEP Miroslav Radačovský devoted part of his question time to name-checking a businessman from his hometown and voicing hope that more people from eastern Slovakia would make it to the Parliament.
Key quote: “We’ll need to regulate Libra to supervise it on EU level both from the point of financial stability and the protection of investors.”
Verdict: The candidate was focused, crisp, detailed — and successful in his mission of displaying a steady grip on his familiar subjects of finance and economics. But his nearly three hours of reciting directives and action plans lacked something: any sense of drama or other entertainment value, at least beyond eastern Slovakia.
Mariya Gabriel (Innovation and Youth, Bulgaria)
High point: Her smooth, uncontroversial confirmation.
Low point: Dodging a question on how to ensure research investments go to green tech. And the hugs and kisses with MEPs after the hearing, which suggested Parliament had hardly acted as much of a watchdog.
Key quote: “I’m clearly on the side of the European Parliament … I support increasing the budget for Horizon Europe [research funding]. it’s not an item of spending but investment.”
Verdict: Political equivalent of a three-star romcom. Love was definitely in the air as Gabriel, a former MEP, returned to the European Parliament.
Janez Lenarčič (Crisis management, Slovenia)
High point: Lenarčič claimed to have the answer to the famous question attributed to Henry Kissinger: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?” To applause and laughter at the end of his hearing, he held up a piece of paper with the number of the EU’s emergency response center.
Low point: Didn’t really face one in a low-key hearing. Lowest point for observers was when one MEP delved deep into the EU jargon bag and came out with the “external action cluster.”
Key quote: “It is a noble mission, it is a way to show the best face of Europe around the world,” Lenarčič said of his new post. “Solidarity is something that people don’t think about until the moment they need it. And then they remember it. Forever.”
Verdict: Solid, unspectacular performance by a career diplomat who’d clearly done his homework. Hardly the toughest of grillings — it’s hard to be against humanitarian aid.
Ylva Johansson (Home Affairs, Sweden)
High point: No standout moment but the former minister was able to reassure some who feared she was too leftwing.
Low point: Her reluctance to share details on how she wants to reform EU asylum policy. That earned her the nickname of the “comeback commissioner” from Portuguese MEP Paulo Rangel, as she kept promising to come back with answers later. Her vagueness meant she was required to answer additional written questions.
Key quote: “I have been tackling and cracking tough nuts before in my political career.”
Verdict: Perhaps it’s understandable that she didn’t want to share details on her ideas for reforming EU asylum policy, given the sensitivity of the subject. But this leaves an open question: Does she actually have a plan?
Kadri Simson (Energy, Estonia)
High point: A tweet by Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas during her hearing, saying her home country is now on board with an EU-wide climate neutrality goal of 2050. That helped burnish Simson’s climate credentials, which were under fire from Green MEPs attacking Estonia’s reliance on shale oil.
Low point: Simson’s nervousness and hesitation made her unable to give MEPs clear answers on a number of questions.
Key quote: “I can closely cooperate with member states, and motivate them to raise their targets.”
Verdict: Underwhelming. For environmental NGOs, Simson’s performance was “alarmingly weak.” She made it through confirmation but will still need to prove she’s up to the job.
Dubravka Šuica (Vice president for democracy and demography, Croatia)
High point: She showed she knew her audience by wishing French MEP Pascal Durand a happy birthday after he asked her a question. That prompted a smattering of applause.
Low point: Rambling closing remarks in which she admitted to MEPs that she hadn’t really focused much on the topics in her new portfolio until she was nominated a few weeks ago.
Key quote: “I think that someone’s private beliefs are not relevant to their job.” (When questioned about her views on abortion.)
Verdict: Shaky showing, but enough to win confirmation to a post that’s unlikely to be key in the new Commission. Durand described her as “just sufficient but hardly inspiring” — and that was after she’d wished him a happy birthday.
Janusz Wojciechowski (Agriculture, Poland)
High point: In his second hearing, he won a warm round of applause for choosing to speak in Polish, after struggling in English in the first session.
Low point: After the agonizing first hearing, when lawmakers were invited to applaud, they remained silent.
Key quote: “I was raised on a farm!”
Verdict: Wojciechowski came across as vague and overly keen to give answers that pleased everyone, but the lawmakers knew that he had experience in agriculture and feared that Poland could send a worse candidate if he were rejected.
Sylvie Goulard (Internal market, France)
High point: Solid on policy but that didn’t count for much, in two hearings.
Low points: Too many to give all of them a mention. Faced repeated questions about an investigation into possible misuse of EU funds for payments to a Parliament assistant, and about her highly paid side gig with a U.S think tank. “How many French people earn €13,000 for making phone calls?” asked Virginie Joron, from the French far-right National Rally. Lowest point of all was her rejection by Parliament’s internal market and industry committees on Thursday.
Key quote: “I am clean.” (from her first hearing)
Verdict: Emmanuel Macron’s pick was unconvincing, but she may also have been doomed before she entered the room. Many MEPs, especially those from the European People’s Party, seemed to have decided from the start that she was going down.
POLITICO’s Statlers and Waldorfs: Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer, Hannah Brenton, Hanne Cokelaere, Cristina Gonzalez, Laura Greenhalgh, Andrew Gray, Anca Gurzu, Jakob Hanke, Melissa Heikkilä, Laura Kayali, Thibault Larger, Christian Oliver, John Rega, Eline Schaart, Bjarke Smith-Meyer, Marion Solletty, Paola Tamma, Sarah Wheaton.
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