EP grilling fails to singe Šefčovič

DESPITE the fact that the recent European Parliament (EP) hearing for Slovakia’s European Commissioner-designate Maroš Šefčovič belonged among the most-heated ones, he passed his trial-by-fire and was eventually endorsed for the post of Vice-President of the European Commission (EC) for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration.

DESPITE the fact that the recent European Parliament (EP) hearing for Slovakia’s European Commissioner-designate Maroš Šefčovič belonged among the most-heated ones, he passed his trial-by-fire and was eventually endorsed for the post of Vice-President of the European Commission (EC) for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration.

Before the start of their terms with the EC, nominees from each member state must be approved as a whole body by the EP. Individual hearings for each commissioner-designate took place in mid-January before the parliamentary committees responsible for oversight of each commissioner’s portfolio.

Šefčovič, assigned the portfolio of inter-institutional relations and administration, was examined by members of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) on January 18.

Members of the committee, who are expected to test the professional skills and overall preparedness of the commissioner-designate to handle his assigned portfolio, questioned Šefčovič about implementation of the recently-approved Lisbon Treaty, electoral reform of European elections, the rotating seat of the EP, and his level of euro-federalism.

Radovan Geist, the editor-in-chief of EurActiv.sk, said there were several tough, politically-sensitive questions put to Šefčovič and that some committee members found his answers to be too general.

“In general, those were questions about problems that cannot be answered in a way that would please everyone – such as the regular migration of the EP between Brussels and Strasbourg, the issue of the optimal depth of European integration, etc,” Geist told The Slovak Spectator. He said that Šefčovič, who had previously served as ambassador at Slovakia’s Permanent Representation to the EU, used his experience and skills as a diplomat and eloquence as a speaker.

Anti-Roma accusations

Media attention was quite heavily focused on Šefčovič’s hearing, not as a test of his professional skills, but mainly because of accusations of anti-Roma sentiments directed at him. The accusations were made a few days before the hearing by József Szájer, an MEP from the Hungary's Fidesz party, which is affiliated to the European People’s Party (EPP). Szájer serves as the EPP's coordinator for commissioner-designate hearings.

Szájer accused Šefčovič of having called Roma “exploiters of the Slovak welfare system” at a conference of the European Commission in 2005. He said that in his EC post, Šefčovič cannot have any discriminatory attitudes.

Szájer’s accusations caused a heated reaction on both the European and national level. Not only the Slovak government that nominated him, but also Roma organisations such as the European Roma Information Office, supported Šefčovič and praised him for his personal engagement in the area of social inclusion of the Roma minority in Slovakia.

A question about these accusations was raised at the very beginning of Šefčovič’s hearing and in his response he stressed his past work with Roma citizens and asked the MEPs to put this work on the same scale as the five-year-old quote which he said was taken out of context, the official EP press release reported.

“I never had anti-Roma sentiments,” Šefčovič said. “I am ready to work with those who want to work on this issue.”

Observers, as well as Slovak MEPs contacted by The Slovak Spectator, found Šefčovič’s defence during the hearing to be convincing.

“I regard the reservations against Mr. Šefčovič on the part of some of my fellow MEPs to be nonsense and unjustified,” Slovak MEP Eduard Kukan told The Slovak Spectator. “I have known Šefčovič for 20 years and I find any attempts to create the impression that he is racist or xenophobic bizarre.”

National politics involved

Another Slovak MEP, Monika Flašíková Beňová, who is affiliated with the Party of European Socialists (PES) and elected as a representative of the Smer party, believes that Szájer’s accusations were a result of a radicalisation of the attitudes of Fidesz MEPs towards Slovakia.

“It seems like this year, and mainly the upcoming national elections in Hungary, will bring along many more similar verbal attacks,” she told The Slovak Spectator.

Her party leader and Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, expressed similar sentiments when the conflict hit the national political scene. After the hearing, the SITA newswire reported, he said that the Slovak government condemns all the attacks of “chauvinist Fidesz” against Šefčovič.

“We recommend that Fidesz deal with the complexities on its own national political scene, where murders of Roma occurred,” Fico said, adding that he is concerned about Slovakia’s Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), which according to him, serves as an extension of Fidesz in Slovakia.

The European political aspect

Geist, however, believes the national aspect or relations between Slovakia and Hungary are not very significant in this case.

“MEP Szájer, who led the attack on Šefčovič, was doing it to a large extent by virtue of his post – as he is the EPP coordinator for commissioners’ hearings,” Geist said.

According to Geist, questions about the personal integrity of the commissioner-designate are fully appropriate and justified. On the other hand, he agreed there were politics involved in the criticism of Šefčovič, as the European socialists, the PES, had been pressing on the Bulgarian designate, Rumania Jeleva, to give up her post over a dubious assets declaration and alleged links between her husband and organised crime in Bulgaria. She did eventually withdraw her name.

“The EPP agreed they would return the strike and Šefčovič’s statement from five years ago provided an opportunity to do that,” he said, explaining that Šefčovič, despite himself being an apolitical diplomat, was still a nominee of Slovakia's Smer-led government, and Smer in turn is affiliated with the PES.

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