Some questions to the would-be Commissioner for Better Regulation, Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law (Timmermans)

by Steve PEERS, Henri LABAYLE and Emilio DE CAPITANI

The would-be Commissioners for Better Regulation, Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law (Timmermans) will be questioned tomorrow by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), to determine whether the EP should vote to confirm them in office. MEPs have already asked some written questions and the would-be Commissioner have replied. However, during the oral hearing will be an opportunity for MEPs to ascertain the Commissioners’ plans, and to secure important political commitments.
Rather strangely the hearing will not follow to the EP very detailed internal rules (of art.118 and Annex XVI (*) which require that hearing should take place before the Parliamentary committees Candidate Vice President Timmermans will instead be heard by the Conference of President of political Groups.

1.Rule of law / implementation of EU law
The confidence of all EU citizens and national authorities in the functioning of the rule of law in the Member States is vital to increase the mutual trust and to further develop the EU into “an area of freedom, security and justice without internal frontiers”.
In your written reply you strongly support the recent Commission proposal for a “common rule of law framework (COM(2014)158 as repeatedly advocated by the European Parliament (but criticized by the Council legal Service). However such an exercise risk which should cover all the EU member states, risk to be meaningless if the Commission does not strengthen the mechanisms which implement the principle of sincere cooperation with and between the MS. For instance there is no ground in the Treaty which justify confidential meetings between the Commission and the MS (even in the framework of the so called “EU Pilot mechanism”) when legal certainty on the exact scope of EU citizens rights and obligations are at stake.
As first steps to strengthen the rule of law would not then be appropriate :
– to update the way how the Commission on a daily basis debates with the Member states the implementation of EU legislation?
– make public the MS implementation plans as well as the table of correspondence between EU and national rules ?
– to implement, (five years after the Lisbon Treaty !), the art.70 mechanism on “objective and impartial evaluation of the implementation of the Union policies” in the FSJA by keeping informed the European and national parliaments ?
– to take stock every year of the ruling of the European Courts and of the measures taken at national level ?

2. Charter of Fundamental rights as “roadmap for the EU legislator ?
In a recent ruling the Court of Justice stroke down for the first time an EU Directive (the Data Retention Directive 2006/24) because “.., the EU legislature has exceeded the limits imposed by compliance with the principle of proportionality in the light of Articles 7, 8 and 52(1) of the Charter. ” According to the CJEU the Directive “..does not lay down clear and precise rules governing the extent of the interference with the fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 7 and 8 of the Charter” and moreover “does not require the data in question to be retained within the European Union, with the result that it cannot be held that the control, explicitly required by Article 8(3) of the Charter, by an independent authority of compliance with the requirements of protection and security, as referred to in the two previous paragraphs, is fully ensured…” In other terms from now on the Court of Justice will require a strict assessment of the proportionality and necessity of measures that constitute serious restrictions to fundamental rights, however legitimate the objectives pursued by the EU legislature.
On the basis of this landmark ruling do you not consider your priority to revise under the proportionality perspective the legislation falling in judicial and police cooperation in criminal matters adopted before the entry into force of the Charter and of the Treaty of Lisbon ?
Will you commit to develop a stronger and more transparent strategy to deal with infringements of EU law where the rights in the Charter are threatened by a Member State’s non-existent or incorrect implemenation of its EU law obligations?
Will not be sensible, taking in account your attachment to the REFIT exercise to review the legislation by establishing “sunset clauses” for measures limiting EU citizens rights? Moreover, by sticking on data protection aspects do you not consider that this ruling raise even bigger doubts on the compatibility with the proportionality principle of the EU-US agreements on PNR and TFTP and of the legislative proposals submitted by the Commission on the EU-PNR and the “Entry-Exit” (not to speak of the lack of compliance of the proposal on trusted traveller with the principle of non discrimination) ? 

3 Better Regulation –interinstitutional agreement on codecision – Transparency
In your written answer your recognise that the current inter-institutional agreement on better law making has several flaws but you envisage its revision only by the end of 2015. However in the meantime some practices against the spirit and the letter of the Treaties risk to continue. For instance the Treaties make no more reference to the protection of the decision making process for legislative procedures and require public debates also at the Council level. Notwithstanding this new legal framework until now the Commission has done nothing to bring closer Council and EP on the revision of Regulation 1049/01 and create a majority between the MS (as former NL minister you should know it very well).
Will you, as first priority modify the 2008 Commission proposal on access to documents by taking as a basis the art.15 TFUE the art.42 of the Charter and the position adopted by the European Parliament position adopted in December 2011?
As the Council has de facto imposed to the other EU Institutions Agencies and bodies its internal security rules as common standards for classified documents would you not consider that the current situation violates the Treaty provision which requires a legislative measure to be adopted under art. 15 TFEU ?

4. Delegated / Implementing acts – Transparency
After the Lisbon Treaty the Commission instead of applying on a case by case basis the implementation of the subsidiarity principle by defining policy by policy what should had been considered basic rules, what could had been considered non-essential (and therefore to be delegated) and what could had been considered purely executive has adopted an “horizontal” approach by taking as main reference the pre-existing kind of Committees.
This “shortcut” has not only ignored the evolutions of different policies (as well as of the Institution’s roles) but it is also taking more time than what could had been by following the main road of updating the EU legislative objectives in the light of the new Treaties and of the Charter.
On a transparency perspective you states that you “will also consider whether the Commission could systematically publish draft measures at the point at which consultations with expert groups are due to start. This would allow the European Parliament and the Council as well as other stakeholders to express their views before formal adoption. The three institutions could discuss whether a dedicated Register could be part of the solution and depending on the conclusions reached, I would be ready to examine the feasibility of this option and its inclusion in the modernised inter-institutional agreement on better law-making.
Are you aware that such an obligation already exist in Regulation 1049/01 according to which “Wider access should be granted to documents in cases where the institutions are acting in their legislative capacity, including under delegated powers, while at the same time preserving the effectiveness of the institutions’ decision-making process. Such documents should be made directly accessible to the greatest possible extent.” ?

5. Subsidiarity in the Freedom Security and Justice Area
In your written answer you make reference to your initiative as former Dutch minister for external affairs on what the EU should do to comply with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. However according to the 54 recommendations adopted one year ago by your government the EU should be less ambitious, in the freedom security and justice area, on :
on consular protection for EU citizens abroad (even if since its establishment by the Maastricht Treaty this right exists only on paper)
family reunification (where NL recommends higher age and civic integration requirement)
admission of third-country nationals for the purposes of research, studies, pupil exchange, etc.
(where NL considers that the categories of pupils in exchange programmes, unpaid interns, volunteers and au pairs should not be covered)
proposals to harmonise the law of criminal procedure where NL considers that” legislation should not be ‘Lisbonised’ simply because the Treaty of Lisbon exists” and oppose “the introduction of legislative proposals purely on the grounds that the Council of Europe has already adopted a Convention on the same subject”. (NDR : So why they did bother ratifying the Lisbon Treaty and a binding Charter when the previous regime was already satisfactory and why bother the EU if the Council of Europe suffice?)
proposals to harmonise substantive criminal law where NL challenges, for instance, EU proposals enforcing criminal laws against identity fraud and customs law violations) and the revision of the money laundering legislation.
As a Vice President of the Commission will you maintain the same approach ?

6. EU agencies and their powers /accountability
In the last ten years the number of EU agencies has rocketed from 10 to 32 sometime for sound technical reasons but more often as way for Member States to shape and manage EU policies without a real accountability before the Commission, the European Parliament and the national parliaments. Their global budget amount in 2014, to 800 million in contributions and with more than 6.000 officials they have become a parallel administration which act in a rather fuzzy way without a clear legal administrative framework. The Common Approach to decentralised agencies (a “political” agreement reached in 2012 by the Council, Commission and European Parliament) has laid down some parameters on EU agencies’ establishment, hosting, human resources policy, transparency and accountability but as such is more of cosmetic nature. But what is more worrying is the fact that some of the agencies are becoming political agenda setting bodies. In the FSJA the role of Frontex and of Europol (managing the so called “policy cycle” which define the EU priorities against crime ) is self –explaining.
How do you intend re-establish a real binding administrative framework and improve the rule of law principles for these “independent” EU bodies?
You announced that you “will prepare a proposal for an Inter-Institutional Agreement creating a mandatory lobby register covering the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council”. As cases of conflict of interest have emerged will you add also the EU Agencies to the register ?

NOTES

Rule 118 Election of the Commission
1. The President shall, after consulting the President-elect of the Commission, request the nominees proposed by the President-elect of the Commission and by the Council for the various posts of Commissioner to appear before the appropriate committees according to their prospective fields of responsibility. These hearings shall be held in public.
2. The President may invite the President-elect of the Commission to inform Parliament about the allocation of portfolio responsibilities in the proposed College of Commissioners in accordance with his or her political guidelines.
3. The appropriate committee or committees shall invite the Commissioner-designate to make a statement and answer questions. The hearings shall be organised in such a way as to enable Commissioners-designate to disclose to Parliament all relevant information. Provisions relating to the organisation of the hearings shall be laid down in an annex to these Rules of Procedure16.
4. The President-elect shall present the college of Commissioners and their programme at a sitting of Parliament which the President of the European Council and the President of the Council shall be invited to attend. The statement shall be followed by a debate.
5. In order to wind up the debate, any political group or at least 40 Members may table a motion for a resolution. Rule 123(3), (4) and (5) shall apply.
Following the vote on the motion for a resolution, Parliament shall elect or reject the Commission by a majority of the votes cast.
The vote shall be taken by roll call.
Parliament may defer the vote until the next sitting.
6. The President shall inform the Council of the election or rejection of the Commission.
7. In the event of a substantial portfolio change during the Commission’s term of office, the filling of a vacancy or the appointment of a new Commissioner following the accession of a new Member State, the Commissioners concerned shall be invited to appear before the committees responsible for the areas of responsibility in question in accordance with paragraph 3.

ANNEX XVI Guidelines for the approval of the Commission

1. The following principles, criteria and arrangements shall apply for making the entire College of the Commission subject to Parliament’s vote of consent:
(a) Basis for assessment
Parliament shall evaluate Commissioners-designate on the basis of their general competence, European commitment and personal independence. It shall assess knowledge of their prospective portfolio and their communication skills.
Parliament shall have particular regard to gender balance. It may express itself on the allocation of portfolio responsibilities by the President-elect.
Parliament may seek any information relevant to its reaching a decision on the aptitude of the Commissioners-designate. It shall expect full disclosure of information relating to their financial interests. The declarations of interest of the Commissioners-designate shall be sent for scrutiny to the committee responsible for legal affairs.
(b) Hearings
Each Commissioner-designate shall be invited to appear before the appropriate committee or committees for a single hearing. The hearings shall be held in public.
The hearings shall be organised by the Conference of Presidents on a recommendation of the Conference of Committee Chairs. The Chair and coordinators of each committee shall be responsible for the detailed arrangements. Rapporteurs may be appointed.
Appropriate arrangements shall be made to associate relevant committees where portfolios are mixed. There are three options:
(i) if the portfolio of the Commissioner-designate falls within the remit of a single committee, the Commissioner-designate shall be heard by that committee alone (the committee responsible);
(ii) if the portfolio of the Commissioner-designate falls more or less equally within the remit of more than one committee, the Commissioner-designate shall be heard jointly by those committees (joint committees); and
(iii) if the portfolio of the Commissioner-designate falls mainly within the remit of one committee and only to a small extent within the remit of at least one other committee, the Commissioner-designate shall be heard by the committee mainly responsible, with the association of the other committee or committees (associated committees).
The President-elect of the Commission shall be fully consulted on the arrangements.
The committees shall submit written questions to the Commissioners-designate in good time before the hearings. For each Commissioner-designate there shall be two common questions drafted by the Conference of Committee Chairs, the first relating to the issues of general competence, European commitment and personal independence, and the second relating to the management of the portfolio and cooperation with Parliament. The committee responsible shall draft three other questions. In the case of joint committees, they shall each be given the right to draft two questions.
Each hearing shall be scheduled to last three hours. Hearings shall take place in circumstances, and under conditions, in which Commissioners-designate enjoy an equal and fair opportunity to present themselves and their opinions.
Commissioners-designate shall be invited to make an opening oral statement of no longer than 15 minutes. Where possible, questions put during the course of the hearing shall be grouped together by theme. The bulk of the speaking time shall be allotted to political groups, mutatis mutandis in accordance with Rule 162. The conduct of the hearings shall aim to develop a pluralistic political dialogue between the Commissioners-designate and the Members. Before the end of the hearing, Commissioners-designate shall be given the opportunity to make a brief closing statement.
There shall be a live audio-visual transmission of the hearings. An indexed recording of the hearings shall be made available for the public record within 24 hours.
(c) Evaluation
The Chair and coordinators shall meet without delay after the hearing to evaluate the individual Commissioners-designate. Those meetings shall be held in camera. The coordinators shall be invited to state whether, in their opinion, the Commissioners-designate are qualified both to be members of the College and to carry out the particular duties they have been assigned. The Conference of Committee Chairs shall design a pro forma template to assist the evaluation.
In the case of joint committees the Chair and the coordinators of the committees concerned shall act jointly throughout the procedure.
There shall be a single evaluation statement for each Commissioner-designate. The opinions of all the committees associated with the hearing shall be included.
Where committees require further information in order to complete their evaluation, the President shall write on their behalf to the President-elect of the Commission. The coordinators shall take the latter’s reply into consideration.
If the coordinators are unable to reach a consensus on the evaluation, or at the request of one political group, the Chair shall convene a full committee meeting. As a last resort, the Chair shall put the two decisions to the vote by secret ballot.
The committees’ statements of evaluation shall be adopted and made public within 24 hours after the hearing. The statements shall be examined by the Conference of Committee Chairs and conveyed subsequently to the Conference of Presidents. Unless it decides to seek further information, the Conference of Presidents, following an exchange of views, shall declare the hearings closed.
The President-elect of the Commission shall present the whole College of Commissioners-designate and their programme at a sitting of Parliament which the President of the European Council and the President of the Council shall be invited to attend. The presentation shall be followed by a debate. In order to wind up the debate, any political group or at least 40 Members may table a motion for resolution. Rule 123(3), (4) and (5) shall apply.
Following the vote on the motion for resolution, Parliament shall vote on whether or not to give its consent to the appointment, as a body, of the President-elect and Commissioners-designate. Parliament shall decide by a majority of the votes cast, by roll call. It may defer the vote until the following sitting.
2. The following arrangements shall apply in the event of a change in the composition of the College of Commissioners or a substantial portfolio change during its term of office:
(a) When a vacancy caused by resignation, compulsory retirement or death is to be filled, Parliament, acting with dispatch, shall invite the Commissioner-designate to participate in a hearing under the same conditions as those laid down in paragraph 1.
(b) In the event of the accession of a new Member State, Parliament shall invite the Commissioner-designate to participate in a hearing under the same conditions as those laid down in paragraph 1.
(c) In the event of a substantial portfolio change, the Commissioners affected shall be invited to appear before the committees concerned before taking up their new responsibilities.
By way of derogation from the procedure laid down in paragraph 1(c), eighth subparagraph, when the vote in plenary concerns the appointment of a single Commissioner, the vote shall be by secret ballot.

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