By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union's new executive began a nine-day series of confirmation hearings in parliament on Monday that will fix the shape of a management team that hopes to revive the EU economy and regain the trust of voters.
There were few surprises and fewer sparks as the first four of 27 nominees were quizzed on issues that underlined the scope of Brussels' powers, from trade rules with the United States and Russia to telecoms mergers and Internet privacy, aid to the developing world and the plight of migratory birds over Malta.
With broad support from mainstream parties in the European Parliament, none of the four seemed likely to be rejected by the relevant committees, though there was plenty of criticism from activists and from those lawmakers elected on a surge of support for anti-EU populists in May that has rattled the EU elites.
The parliamentary committees deferred decisions to Tuesday. And they are preparing potentially stiffer opposition to some of incoming European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker's other choices later in the week, including French and British nominees to economic and financial policy jobs.
Parliament can vote to accept or reject the Commission as a whole, a ballot set for Oct. 22 in order for the executive to take office on Nov. 1. But the failure of any one of Juncker's team, one from each EU member state, to win the support of lawmakers involved in hearings, could disrupt the timetable and force the new EU chief to shuffle his team and his strategy.
Those subjected to three-hour interviews by the Parliament on Monday were: Sweden's Cecilia Malmstrom, hoping to run the bloc's trade interests; Guenther Oettinger, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who may oversee telecoms and data issues; Croatian Neven Mimica, for international development; and Karmenu Vella of Malta, on environment and fisheries.
Malmstrom faced a particular grilling after a draft of her responses to earlier, written questions suggested she was ready to make a major concession to critics of a planned Transatlantic free trade pact by ruling out special courts that would let businesses sue governments for restricting unfettered commerce.
In parliament, she said only that she did not rule out such a move as she tried to reassure lawmakers that free trade would not mean giant U.S. multinationals using such special tribunals to bully EU governments into easing protections for consumers or the environment. She noted, however, that such courts, designed to allay investor fears of high-handed government, were meant to also provide a model for trade deals with states like China.
In a mark of how the EU's sprawling economic interests play increasingly into geopolitics, Malmstrom also dismissed pressure from Russia that the bloc amend a free trade deal with Ukraine that has triggered a year of deepening East-West confrontation.
Also much scrutinised by business was the evening hearing of Oettinger, like Malmstrom a member of the outgoing Commission led by Jose Manuel Barroso. He hopes to swap his current energy brief for the "digital economy" - telecoms and data, a major concern for Germans jealous of their privacy.
Oettinger grappled with questions on "net neutrality", saying he believed Internet providers should provide equal access to all customers selling services online. This has become a bone of contention in efforts to form a common, EU-wide approach to reviving its ailing telecoms sector.
He also said he would continue his predecessor's efforts to end cross-border mobile phone roaming charges inside the bloc, a key policy to show voters the benefits of the single market.
Mimica, who would run one of the world's major development aid budgets if confirmed, spoke of the need to combat corruption as his native Croatia had done in successfully negotiating its entry to the Union. He also called for the EU to be more active in fostering development strategies, beyond paying for aid, the bloc should be "a player, not a payer", Mimica said.
Vella, who cited his origins in a "small fishing village" on the Mediterranean island which is the EU's least populous state, faced his toughest questioning over Malta's failure to enforce EU regulations protecting wildlife, notably by not stopping hunters shooting birds migrating between Africa and Europe.
Insisting he would ensure EU laws were implemented in all countries, Vella said that as Malta's tourism minister, his correspondence was dominated by complaints, especially from Britain, about the plight of the birds - whose presence, he said, was a major attraction for many visitors to the island.
Vella also summed up the steep learning curve he and fellow would-be commissioners have faced since Juncker allocated them their roles three weeks ago. Had he immersed himself so deeply at university, he joked, he would already have his doctorate.
The personalities involved are not Juncker's only concerns. Some in parliament are sceptical of his proposed structure for the Commission, introducing a two-tier hierarchy that he says will ensure focus on the priorities of creating jobs and winning political support for the European Union as a project.
Critics in parliament say it looks like a recipe for turf wars and confusion over where responsibility lies.
Juncker, a veteran former Luxembourg prime minister, has presented his team as "political, not technocratic", featuring several former premiers and fewer career bureaucrats. But lawmakers are uneasy about several appointments. Nominees from Britain, France, Spain and Hungary face a torrid interrogation.
Six hearings on Tuesday involve, among others, the Greek nominee to handle migration and home affairs and the Austrian nominated to run relations with neighbouring regions and states wanting to join the EU.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Jan Strupczewski, Julia Fioretti and Adrian Croft; Editing by Grant McCool)