EU holds hearings, but who’s listening?
In the United States, Senate hearings to confirm presidential appointments are a Big News Story, with scores of photographers, TV cameras and journalists cramming into the committee rooms to follow the event live.
The European Union — which has 200 million more people than the United States and is a larger trading bloc — has something similar, with hearings before the European Parliament to confirm nominees to the European Commission, the 27-person body that enforces laws across the EU.
Commissioners serve for five years and, depending on their portfolio, can have a huge impact on the EU’s 500 million citizens, which means parliament has a critical role to play in examining their credentials.
Hearings for the new Commission began this week, with the first up Britain’s Catherine Ashton (above), the nominee to be EU foreign affairs chief. Ashton arrived at the hearing in a smart grey suit and to a barrage of flashing camera bulbs, giving the event some of the cachet of a U.S.-style hearing, not unlike Hillary Clinton’s hearing a year ago to be approved as secretary of state.
But after the initial excitement, Ashton’s three-hour session before the foreign affairs committee was decidedly low-key, avoiding any fireworks and producing very little news. While Ashton answered all the questions, she side-stepped discussion of specific policy, especially on issues such as Iran and Afghanistan, playing a cautious hand.
Three Brussels-based foreign policy experts called for their opinion on her performance said they hadn’t even watched it, and another who did described it as under-inspiring. Newspapers covered her appearance, but it was hardly front-page news, while TV coverage was light.
“Hillary Clinton set the benchmark for these sort of things; Ashton’s not really in that league,” said one EU foreign affairs commentator.
Two subsequent hearings, of Olli Rehn, the candidate for economic affairs commissioner, and Karel de Gucht, nominee for trade chief, produced more news, but again hardly had the high-profile clout of a U.S. confirmation hearing.
That’s partly down to the 736-member European Parliament, which is more unwieldly than the 100-member Senate.
But either way, the underwhelming hearings so far don’t bode well for the EU’s desire to increase its presence on the world stage, and give it a political strength to match its global economic influence.