Romania and Hungary face picking new candidates to represent them in the European Commission after MEPs voted to reject the countries’ nominees over financial conflicts of interests.
In an embarrassment for Ursula von der Leyen, the commission’s president-elect, the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee on Thursday voted not to recommend Romania’s Rovana Plumb and Hungary’s Laszlo Trocsanyi to enter a formal hearing process to assess the suitability of commission candidates.
The verdict came after a majority of MEPs judged both candidates to have financial conflicts of interest, parliament officials told the Financial Times.
It is the first time commission designates have been rejected by MEPs before formal hearings. David Sassoli, president of the parliament, will write to Ms von der Leyen explaining the committee’s verdict.
Parliament’s legal affairs committee is required to “pre-clear” all 27 commissioner nominees ahead of formal confirmation hearings with MEPs, which start next week.
Of the 27, some 10 were asked to write letters explaining their financial interests. Ms Plumb, who had been pencilled in as the next transport commissioner, and Mr Trocsanyi, who was slated to get the enlargement portfolio, were the only two asked to explain potential irregularities during a closed-door session with MEPs in Brussels on Thursday.
Ms von der Leyen can ask the governments of Romania and Hungary to send new nominees or plough ahead with the two already named by asking them to fix the irregularities highlighted by the parliament. The pair were due to attend hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday next week.
In hopes of a last-minute reprieve, the parliament’s legal affairs committee will convene again on Monday to re-examine the cases of the two candidates, said Jaume Duch, spokesman for the European Parliament.
The extraordinary meeting was called after David Sassoli, president of the parliament, held talks with Ms von der Leyen after the initial vote on Thursday.
Progressives and liberals in the parliament have demanded the nominees do not return. “Unless these two candidates can clear their conflicts of interest, then Ursula von der Leyen must ask the Hungarian and Romanian and governments to propose new candidates,” said Heidi Hautala, a Green MEP.
Ever since the nominees were announced earlier this month, Mr Trocsanyi and Ms Plumb have been highlighted by MEPs as two of the most problematic candidates.
Mr Trocsanyi is a former justice minister in Viktor Orban’s nationalistic government who oversaw laws criminalising assistance to asylum seekers and clamping down on non-governmental organisations.
Some of the legislation is being challenged in the European Court of Justice, while the European Parliament last year triggered a disciplinary proceeding against Hungary for undermining the rule of law.
The legal affairs committee grilled Mr Trocsanyi over the law firm he co-founded in 1991 and claims it received lucrative government contracts. .
Before he became justice minister, the firm signed a deal worth almost €500,000 to represent Hungary’s national development ministry. His firm also won contracts while he was minister, including one worth approximately €1m to represent the government in legal action related to an upgrade of the Paks nuclear plant.
Mr Trocsanyi, who at that time owned a 12.6 per cent stake in the firm, has repeatedly denied any conflict of interest as he has not been actively employed at the firm for more than a decade. According to Mr Trocsanyi’s government asset declaration forms, by January 2019 he no longer had a stake in the company.
In a statement to the committee seen by the Financial Times, Mr Trocsanyi said his activities at the law firm had been suspended since 2007. “Being on leave of absence means that I have not been renumerated by the law firm in any way,” he said. The firm declined all new government contracts while he was serving as minister for justice between 2014-2019, he said.
Zoltan Kovacs, spokesman for Mr Orban, accused “pro-immigration MEPs” of not being able to tolerate an anti-migration commissioner.
Ms Plumb, who was nominated by Bucharest’s social democrat government, has come under scrutiny over loans worth approximately €1m that she has disclosed on asset declarations at home but did not divulge to the European Parliament.
Romania’s anti-corruption authorities tried to investigate Ms Plumb in 2017 over suspicion that she had been involved with the illegal purchase of an island on the Danube river, but the Romanian parliament rejected the request. Ms Plumb has denied any wrongdoing in the case.
In Thursday’s secret ballot, 16 MEPs voted against her, with six in favour and two abstentions. Mr Trocsanyi received nine votes in favour, with 11 against and two abstentions.
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