As part of our ongoing Just the Facts publications in relation to the nomination and appointment of officials to the EU institutions, such as one here on the College of Commissioners, in this Just the Facts we look at the appointment of European Commissioners and the steps involved in appointing a new European Commissioner.
Introduction: How are European Commissioners appointed?
Article 17(3) TEU states that “the Commission shall be completely independent” where its members “shall neither seek nor take instructions from any Government or other institution, body, office or entity” where its members’ ”independence is beyond doubt.”
As ‘the guardians of the Treaties’, the independence of the European Commission is paramount to ensure it is free from external influences. Therefore, the appointment of Commissioners is exclusively a European level process.
As University College Dublin’s Prof Gavin Barrett highlighted in a recent IACES opinion piece, a common accord is reached on a list of Commissioner candidates between the Council of the EU and the Commission President-elect. This list is based on Member State government’s “suggestions” as stated in Article 17(7) TEU. The same article states that the Commission President is “elected” by the European Parliament.
Before obtaining the consent from the European Parliament as a whole, as stated under Article 17(7) TEU, the nominated list of Commissioners appear before the Parliament committee that matches their designated portfolio for a single three hour-long ‘hearing’. During this meeting, MEPs assess the aptitude of each of the candidates on relating EU policy issues and examine any potential or actual conflicts of interest.
In November 2020, following the hearings, 707 out of the then 751 MEPs voted on whether to approved of Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission. A total of 461 voted (65%) in favour of her Commission, 157 voting against (22%) with 89 abstentions (13%). It is only after the vote in Parliament that the Commission is formally appointed by the European Council, acting by qualified majority voting.
When a Commissioner leaves a post:
For a variety of reasons, European Commissioners occasionally leave their posts during a Commission’s term. For example, in July 2014, following the European Parliament elections that May, four members of Barroso’s Commission resigned to take up their new roles as MEPs.
In June 2016, following the outcome of the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU, the British Commissioner Jonathan Hill resigned from Juncker’s Commission.
In cases of serious misconduct, Article 17(8) TEU and Article 234 TFEU state that the Commission can be required to resign as a body, if the European Parliament successfully adopts a motion of censure (a motion of no confidence). To date, such a motion has not been adopted.
The President of the Commission does have the power to dismiss a Commissioner, under Article 17(6) TEU. In the case of serious misconduct, that are a “breach of [the Commissioner’s] obligations”, Commissioners can also be “compulsorily retired” by the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) under Article 245 TFEU.
Appointing a new Commissioner:
Article 246 TFEU sets out the overall process in replacing a Commissioner: “A vacancy caused by resignation, compulsory retirement or death shall be filled for the remainder of the Member’s term of office by a new Member of the same nationality appointed by the Council, by common accord with the President of the Commission, after consulting the European Parliament”.
The procedural steps involved in replacing a Commissioner who has resigned are as follows:
- The President of the Commission informs the Council of the EU and the European Parliament of the resignation.
- The Member State of the Commissioner who resigned then nominates a candidate for the replacement in a letter addressed to the Council of the EU and to the President of the Commission.
- The Council of the EU formally consults the European Parliament in relation to the candidate.
- The President of the Commission informs the European Parliament of the portfolio they intend to attribute to the candidate.
- The European Parliament gives its opinion on the candidate, based on a hearing and a Plenary vote.
- The Council of the EU proceeds, by common accord, with the President of the Commission, to the appointment of the candidate.
- The Commissioner takes office immediately, upon appointment.
By examining the timeline in 2016 between resignation of former British Commissioner Jonathan Hill until his replacement Julian Hill began his term, it is possible to plot out the timelines involved in replacing a Commissioner that has resigned.
|Day (Time elapsed)
|Saturday 25 June
|Jonathan Hill issued his resignation.
|Friday 8 July:
|Julian King was nominated by the UK government.
|Monday 11 July:
|Then President of the Commissioner Juncker interviewed him to assess his suitability to serve as a Commissioner.
|Friday 15 July:
|Jonathan Hill left his office at midnight..
|The Council of the EU consulted the European Parliament on the appointment of Julian King for the Security Union portfolio.
|Saturday 16 July:
|Jonathan Hill’s portfolio of Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union was handed over to Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis of Latvia who held it for the remainder of Juncker’s Commission. He was also responsible for the Euro and Social Dialogue.
|Tuesday 02 August:
|Commission President Juncker proposed to European Parliament President Martin Schulz that Julian King should be appointed to the Security Union portfolio.
|EU Summer Holiday Period
|Monday 12 September:
|The European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs held a hearing of Julian King.
|Tuesday 13 September:
|Members of the Committee met to assess the hearing. They approved of him, paving the way for the Chair of the Committee to inform the President of Parliament to host a vote on his appointment at Plenary that same week.
|Thursday 15 September:
|At a Plenary vote of the European Parliament, MEPs approved Julian King as the new British Commissioner by 394 in favour and 161 voting against.
|Monday 19 September:
|Julian King formally took office.
Notwithstanding the gap period in August, as a result of the annual political summer holiday period in Brussels and across the EU, it took some months to replace the resigning European Commissioner. However, the process is a transparent one, due to the role the European Parliament plays in scrutiny and approval of the candidate. A more detailed timeline of the process and the role of the European Parliament plays here, can be read here.
The appointment of Mairead McGuinness as the European Commissioner-Designate from Ireland with responsibility for Financial Services, Financial Stability and the Capital Markets Union on Tuesday 8 September 2020 is just one of several steps involved in the appointment of a Commissioner.
To compare this timeline with the above from 2016, the next stage of the process will involve consultation between the Council of the EU and the European Parliament on the appointment of Mairead McGuinness to her portfolio. As we can see from 2016, there are a number of steps remaining in the process of appointment.
|Day (Time Elapsed)
|What is taking place in 2020:
|Wednesday 26 August
|Phil Hogan issued his resignation
|Thursday 27 August
|President of the Commission von der Leyen assigned Valdis Dombrovski of Latvia responsibilities for Trade on an interm basis.
|Friday 4 September
|Mairead McGuinness and Andrew McDowell were nominated by the Irish government.
|Monday 7 September
|President of the Commission von der Leyen interviewed both canidates.
|Tuesday 8 September
|Von der Leyen selected Mairead McGuinness as the European Commissioner-designation for the portfolio of Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets. Valdis Dombrovski is also nominated as the new Commissioner for Trade.
|Tuesday 22 September
|The Conference of Presidents (President of the European Parliament and leaders of politcal groups) confirmed that Mairead McGuinness and Valdis Dombrovskis’ hearings at the European Parliament will take place on Friday 2 October.
|Thursday 24 September
|The European Parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs concluded that there is no actual or potential conflict of interest in relations to the new portolios and the European Commissioner-Designates, paving the way for hearings to take place.
|Friday 2 October
|Mairead McGuinness will be heard by the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee from 8.00 to 11.00 (Irish time). Valdis Dombrovskis will be heard by the International Trade Committee from 12.00 to 15.00 (Irish time).
|Monday 5 October
|The European Parliament Conference of Committee Chairs assess the outcome of the two hearings and will forward its conclusions to the Conference of Presidents.
|Tuesday 6 October
|The Conference of Presidents holds final evaluation meeting to decide to close the hearings or request further actions.
|Wednesday 7 October
|Exepcted vote at the European Parliament during its Plenary session on both European Commission nominations.