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Storm clouds gather over new European Commission

Storm clouds gathered over the proposed new European Commission on Wednesday as the European Parliament's main political groups attacked key candidates in a tit-for-tat row.

world Updated: Jan 14, 2010 09:02 IST

Storm clouds gathered over the proposed new European Commission on Wednesday as the European Parliament's main political groups attacked key candidates in a tit-for-tat row.

The dispute carries echoes of a power struggle in 2004, which led to the unprecedented rejection of two candidates, and creates uncertainty as to whether the European Union will be able to swear in a new executive on Feb 1, as had been hoped.

At the centre of the dispute stands Bulgaria's nominee for the role of EU aid commissioner, Rumiana Jeleva, a 40-year-old former foreign minister seen as one of the country's political stars.

The conservative politician's lustre appeared to dim abruptly at her parliamentary confirmation hearing on Tuesday, as liberal and socialist members of the legislature (MEPs) accused her of lying about her ties to Bulgarian firm Global Consult on her official declaration of her financial interests.

The conservatives, formally known as the European People's Party (EPP), are the largest group in parliament. The socialists, officially the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are the second-largest bloc, with the liberals of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) third.

After the hearing, representatives of the main political groups agreed to ask the commission - the EU's executive - and their own legal service for confirmation that Jeleva's declaration was in line with EU transparency rules, effectively freezing her application.

"I want Mrs Jeleva's legal situation clarified as soon as possible, so that the Bulgarian commissioner-designate can be judged on her merits," EPP head Joseph Daul said in a statement.

The parties formalized that demand on Wednesday.

But the same day, the head of the S&D group, Martin Schulz, urged commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso to press the Bulgarian government to drop Jeleva's candidacy, parliament sources said.

That provoked a bitter response from conservative politicians, who described the dispute as a liberal and left-wing "witch-hunt" and launched their own attacks on liberal and socialist candidates.

"I would like to say on behalf of the (conservative) group that we will defend ... the integrity of (Jeleva's) personality against unfounded allegations," EPP deputy chairman Jozsef Szajer said.

Szajer said that his party was seriously worried by anti-Roma remarks allegedly made by the centre-left Slovak candidate for the post of commission vice-president, Maros Sefcovic, in 2005.

"I don't think that the future vice-president of the commission, who is responsible for such a sensitive area as recruitment, equal opportunities and gender, can allow himself to have such discriminatory views," Szajer said.

Szajer denied that his comments came in retaliation for the attacks on Jeleva. Sefcovic's hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Sefcovic's staff replied in a statement that he had "no recollection of having said those words."

"Mr Sefcovic deeply regrets if anything he may have said in the past has caused offence to anyone. He has consistently supported efforts to help the Roma community," the statement said.

Separately, the head of the main German conservative party in the parliament, Werner Langen, said that his group also had concerns over Finland's liberal candidate for the post of economic affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn, whose hearing was Monday.

The Finn's performance was "very subdued", raising the question of whether he was the right man for such a high-profile job, Langen said.

And, strikingly, conservatives and socialists both attacked Lithuania's conservative candidate for the post of anti-fraud commissioner Algirdas Semeta, whose hearing was on Tuesday.

Under EU rules, each of the 26 would-be commissioners has to attend a confirmation hearing before the parliament takes a vote of confidence in the whole body.

The current hearings are set to run until Tuesday, after which the parliament is set to debate them throughout next week.

MEPs are then scheduled to vote on the new commission on January 26. However, officials in Brussels said that that timetable could be thrown into disarray if the row over candidates drags on.

MEPs cannot veto individual candidates, but they can threaten to veto the entire group unless certain nominees are replaced.

In 2004, the body for the first time did exactly that, forcing the withdrawal of Italian candidate Rocco Buttiglione and Latvian nominee Ingrida Udre. Buttiglione had offended the parliament with his views on gays, while Udre had been accused of financial irregularities.

On Wednesday, Bulgarian premier Boyko Borisov said that he was confident that Jeleva would win the parliament's backing.

But sources in Sofia said that Borisov already had a "Plan B" in case parliament torpedoed Jeleva, with the press naming Defence Minister Nikolaj Mladenov, 37, as the likely backup candidate.