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New top EU team in doubt amid conflict of interest concerns

SAM PETREQUIN and LORNE COOK
Incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen adjusts her earphones Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, eastern France. The European Parliament Conference of Presidents holds an exchange of views with European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen and approve the detailed schedule for the hearings of Commissioners-designate (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

BRUSSELS (AP) — The new team set to lead the European Union's powerful executive body was cast into doubt Thursday after a parliamentary committee raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest concerning two candidates for some of the bloc's top jobs.

The legal committee, which vets candidates' financial declarations before they are grilled by EU lawmakers, refused to recommend that Rovana Plumb of Romania and Laszlo Trocsanyi of Hungary be allowed to face official hearings. Plumb was in line to become the EU's top transport official. Trocsanyi was slated to become the commissioner in charge of the bloc's future enlargement.

The hearing process is set to begin Monday and run for more than two weeks. It remains unclear whether the two candidates will be replaced or given another chance to defend themselves.

European Parliament spokesman Jaume Duch Guillot said on Twitter that the parliament president, Davide Sassoli, will "seek clarifications" from the committee, which will reconvene on Monday.

The full assembly of EU lawmakers is set to vote on the entire European Commission, to be led by former German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, in Strasbourg, France on Oct 23. The outgoing commission, headed by Jean-Claude Juncker, ends work on Oct. 31, with the new team set to take over the following day.

"According to the rules, if we find a conflict of interest, we can inform the president of the commission about it. We are going to send her a letter. The ball is in her hands," said the legal committee's vice president, Sergey Lagodinsky.

The commission, the EU's massive bureaucracy with around 33,000 staff, proposes laws for the 28 member countries and makes sure they're enforced. It runs everything from trade talks to consumer protection to privacy and anti-trust policies, as well as supervising national budgets and farm subsidies.

It's the first time that commission candidates have faced conflict of interest hearings. It will now be up to von der Leyen to decide, together with the Hungarian and Romanian governments, which put forward the two.

Given the secret nature of the legal hearings, it wasn't entirely clear what the two might have done wrong, if anything.

But parliament's rules in such instances state that "in more serious cases, if no solution is found to the conflict of interests, and as a last resort, the committee responsible for legal affairs may conclude that the Commissioner-designate is unable to exercise his or her functions in accordance with the Treaties and the Code of Conduct."

The parliament's president would then ask the new commission president "what further steps the latter intends to take."

Speaking after her hearing, Plumb said she has always respected the law.

"I'm as transparent as possible," she said. "I have nothing to hide. I have a family, a large one, and that's all. I'm not a rich woman. Therefore I need loans."

Plumb said she took out two loans, including one worth 800,000 euros to build a house for her family. She said the other had served to finance her political party.

Plumb argued she didn't have to declare the loans under the commissioners' code of conduct because they were for "private purposes."

Questions were raised prior to the hearings about a possible conflict of interest for Trocsanyi related to a law firm he founded in 1991, including whether he still has shares in it and, if not, to whom they were sold.

Leaving his hearing, Trocsanyi told reporters that "everything went fine. I don't know their decision. I answered all the questions. There is no conflict of interest. We are in the hands of politicians."

Manon Aubry, a member of the committee, pointed out that "doubts remained regarding Trocsanyi's relationship with his law firm" and that in the case of Plumb the decision wasn't only related to the absence of a loan declaration, but also to a conflict of interest.

Aubry, a lawmaker from the left-wing European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, then criticized the lack of transparency of the whole hearing process. She said her committee has no proper mandate to investigate and didn't have enough time to properly assess the candidates' declarations of interests.

Calling for the implementation of an independent ethical body, Aubry rued the political nature of the committee's decisions and lashed out at what she perceives as double standards favoring big political groups and candidates from big Western countries.

"For instance, our committee asked some of the candidates to sell the shares they hold with companies in order to avoid conflicts of interest. At the same time, others with extremely important assets were allowed to keep them," she said.