European Commissioners-designate are set to be grilled by MEPs, and all eyes will be on those responsible for justice.
The European Parliament hearings with the new European Commissioners-designate are about to begin. MEPs are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of grilling the candidates.
Of course, lawyers are interested in those responsible for justice. As the Gazette reported, the new commissioner for justice is Věra Jourová. She is a former minister for regional development in the Czech Republic. There was apparently an almighty national struggle over who would win their nomination, and the Czech prime minister announced that she had won it primarily because she was a woman.
I wrote some weeks ago that the president of the commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was struggling to obtain the requisite number of women to avoid the European Parliament rejecting his whole slate out of hand.
The Czechs believed that, if they appointed a woman, they would have a better chance of obtaining a more influential portfolio. They were thinking about regional policy, transport or industry, or possibly the post of vice-president in charge of inter-institutional relations and administration. They were disappointed by justice. (She has some experience of Czech justice, because she was held on remand once in a case of suspected corruption in the handling of EU structural funds, but subsequently cleared of all charges.)
Certainly, if you look at the Commissioner organigramme, justice is not in the first rank. There are seven vice-presidents above Věra Jourová. One of them, Frans Timmermans, former Dutch foreign minister, has become first vice-president of the commission, with responsibility for, among other things, the rule of law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Under the new super-Commissioner system, policies from below have to go through the vice-presidents, and Timmermans is therefore responsible for Jourová’s work.
In the past, under Viviane Reding, justice was a proud directorate which went its own way.
Justice does not remain justice, either. Věra Jourová is listed to become the Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. As we know only too well from the UK, consumers and justice are not units which exactly correspond: something which might be in consumers’ interest might not be in the public interest. How will that possible conflict be handled?
And corporate governance and corporate social responsibility are moved to justice, stripping from them from their natural environment with the rest of company law (which stays with the internal market).
There is much debate in Brussels about whether the new arrangement is better or worse for justice. On the one hand, justice has been cut up and distributed among at least two Commissioners – some argue among even more. On the other, by giving responsibility for it overall to the proposed first vice-president, Juncker’s right-hand man, it can be seen as having been lifted to near the top of the pile. Certainly, that it is how it is seen by Juncker’s own team, we are told.
Some of the questions which will be asked of Commissioners have been published in advance. They are mostly rather generic. Many organisations, including my own, have been preparing other questions to feed MEPs.
Here are some of ours: ‘In the light of the fact that the US and other governments gave $39m (£24m) last year to a single organisation (the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Institute) to fund justice projects around the world, does the Commissioner believe that it would be more efficient for the EU’s justice funds to be channelled through a similar single agency – rather than through multiple grants as at present – to ensure efficiency and growth of best practices?’
‘Ensuring the confidentiality of client-lawyer communications in an online environment is a cornerstone of the right to a fair trial. Do you intend to reinforce the legal protection afforded to this confidentiality at the Union level (e.g. by defining a unified, minimum level of protection from international, state or other governmental surveillance of such communications)?’
The UK’s nomination, Lord Hill (financial services), is one of those expected to face the bumpiest ride. Apparently he does not have the support of either of the large parties, and a Green has commented that ‘Hill is a candidate in breach of the EU treaty, which says that they should prove competence, European engagement and independence’.
We shall all soon be treated to an experience in European democracy.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs