November 14, 2019 / 8:33 AM / 21 days ago

EU assembly holds up Hungarian nominee for commissioner, Brexit muddies waters

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Commission launched a legal case against Britain on Thursday after London, in the throes of a Brexit-focussed election campaign, served notice it would not name its representative to the European Union’s new executive body.

FILE PHOTO: European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, March 6, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

The dispute added to the political muddle dogging the final stages in the formation of a new Commission after the bloc’s parliament refused to swiftly ratify Hungary’s appointee, an ally of his country’s eurosceptic nationalist prime minister.

The two developments underlined how Brexit has roiled EU politics and how the bloc’s increasingly fragmented political landscape has complicated the forging of consensus and compromise crucial to making decisions and advancing policy.

The Commission, whose powers include negotiating international trade deals, policing members states’ finances and proposing EU-wide laws on topics ranging from environment to migration, is due to relaunch on Dec. 1 under the new leadership of German conservative Ursula von der Leyen.

But that could slip if the European Parliament refuses to ratify Hungary’s new candidate for the Commission, which normally comprises one person per member state, after Budapest’s previous nominee was rejected by lawmakers.

France’s Thierry Breton and Romania’s Adina Valean - nominated to oversee the bloc’s internal market and transport sector, respectively - won endorsement as commissioners after three-hour hearings on Thursday, according to lawmakers present.

But they demanded that Oliver Varhelyi, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s new choice for commissioner running EU enlargement and ties with neighbours from Turkey to the Balkan states - answers more questions in writing by noon on Monday.

The parliament said it would assess again on Nov.21 whether Varhelyi provided enough information to be approved.

EU commissioners are required to do their job free of influence from their home country. Some EU lawmakers have raised concern that Varhelyi may not be sufficiently independent of Orban, who stands accused of undermining democracy in Hungary.

The European Parliament is to vote on Nov. 27 to approve von der Leyen’s new Commission as a whole to start from Dec. 1.

But if Hungary’s nomination again falls through, her debut may slip again. Rejections of earlier nominations from Budapest, Bucharest and Paris scuttled the original start date of Nov. 1.

BREXIT DISPUTE

Further complicating the picture is Britain’s refusal to name its representative for the new Commission until after the Dec. 12 election in Britain, even though it remains a full EU member state for the time being.

A British official said late on Wednesday that London would not pick a name before a new government is formed, leaving the bloc seeking to hedge against any legal challenges arising from going without London.

“We have written to the EU to confirm that pre-election guidance states the UK should not normally make nominations for international appointments during this period,” the British official said.

In response, the Commission said on Thursday that it had “sent a letter of formal notice to the United Kingdom for breaching its EU Treaty obligations by not suggesting a candidate for the post of EU Commission”.

Britain’s exit from the EU has already thrice been postponed due to the London parliament’s repeated failure to ratify a withdrawal agreement. Britain is now due to leave on Jan. 31, 2020 and with that prospect nearing, the strongly eurosceptic government has been disinclined to name a new commissioner.

A spokeswoman for von der Leyen on Thursday confirmed receiving letter from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.

“The UK recognises its obligations as a member state and states clearly that it does not wish to stop the EU from proceeding with the formation of a new Commission,” said the spokeswoman, Dana Spinant. “The aim of President-elect von der Leyen remains to... take office on 1 December.”

The snag caused by Britain’s refusal to name a commissioner could be overcome with a decision by the other 27 EU states not to apply current rules, but risks of legal challenges remain.

Additional reporting by Marine Strauss and Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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