This is a first in the balance of power between the Commission – the EU executive – and the European Parliament. Even before the scrutiny of the candidates for the future College of Commissioners, headed by Ursula von der Leyen, began on 30 September, two candidates were blocked by a majority of MEPs sitting on the Committee on Legal Affairs (JURI) because of blatant conflicts of interest. (read here )
In an interview with Mediapart, MEP Manon Aubry (La France Insoumise, LFI), co-chair of the GUE/NGL political group at the European Parliament and a member of the JURI commission where the move to block the candidates started, points out the inadequacies of the current parliamentary scrutiny procedure. In addition, Aubry, who has an NGO background, outlines her strategy to renew the image of the GUE, a grouping of the radical left with many different persuasions (including LFI and Podemos, among others).
Mediapart: The rejection of two Commission candidates, even before their hearings started in the Parliament, is a first. Is it a sign that the European Parliament is getting its act together?
Manon Aubry: I would love to answer that yes, from now on, the Parliament will be exerting real democratic control over the EU’s executive body. However, we are still very far from doing so.
The lesson I draw from this week of scrutinising potential conflicts of interest [in the JURI commission – ed.] is that the procedure is, if not a sham, in any case not at all able to identify and assess conflicts of interest.
What are the flaws in the procedure?
First, we had very little time to go through the candidates’ statements. Then, we were to take these statements at face value, despite the fact they are based solely on the information the candidates provided. We are given no tools for checking or investigating anything.
Moreover, the information requested from the candidates is very limited in itself. Ongoing legal proceedings against commissioners-designate as well as corruption cases are ignored. For example, the candidates don’t have to disclose their bank accounts. By way of comparison, the information that the High Authority for the Transparency of Public Life in France asks MEPs to provide is much more detailed.
Still, you were able to dismiss two problematic candidates from the outset.
At the end of the day, the whole process appears to be highly political. The scrutiny procedure for spotting conflicts of interest already contains a huge conflict of interest in itself, as the members of Parliament who have to rule on the conflicts may belong to the same political groups as the candidates they are assessing.
It is probably not a coincidence that we have only been dealing so far with commissioners from ’small countries‘ of Central and Eastern Europe, who are on the margins of their own European party groupings. Had we done this work independently and transparently, the two rejected candidates would probably not have been the only ones targeted, because they are far from being the worst.
We asked some candidates, for instance Stella Kyriakides, the Cypriot Commissioner-designate for Health, to sell their shares in companies operating in domains overlapping with their future Commission portfolio areas. Yet, we haven’t required the same thing from other candidates coming from ‘big countries’, for example the Spaniard Josep Borrell [future head of European Diplomacy - ed]. This double standard is definitely an issue.
How are you proposing to more effectively examine conflicts of interest at the EU Parliament?
Make the scrutiny process independent and transparent. Create a high authority composed of people who are given the right tools as well as enough time to investigate. This would seem indispensable if are to address European citizens’ loss of confidence in the European institutions.
This overlaps with a suggestion by the Greens to form a new EU ethics authority. So the GUE is starting this legislature by proposing to strengthen the European level through the creation of an additional body. That’s a bit surprising, isn’t it?
It is not our first proposal, and we have already put forward many others... Europe, in its current state, doesn’t work. These conflicts of interest are good examples of practices that worsen the already existing alienation of citizens from the EU institutions. The whole procedure must be reconsidered.
Our group pulls its strength from a kind of political unity we have. You can say that it has not always been that way, and we’ll probably go more into that later. At the Committee on Legal Affairs, we tackled the fight head-on. A new collective momentum is building up within the GUE. We might be small, but we’re there to make noise, we have nothing to lose.
The political roadmap we published lists ten priorities that will serve as a basis for our scrutiny of the new Commission. We have been the only group to do that. It's a strong symbol. Yes, there are differences among us, but less than among the Greens or the Socialists.
Do you think you are more cohesive than the Greens?
We are. They operate more federally than we do, but in substance, it seems to me they display larger internal discrepancies – for instance between their German and French elected representatives. We, in our group, internally differ in how far we want to go in challenging the productivist economic model.
"Even lost battles are worth the fight."
The GUE went from being the fifth largest group in 2014 to being the seventh largest in today’s European Parliament. And it was not until the end of July that the GUE appointed its two co-chairs – when all the other groups had already been formed for at least a month, – because of sharp internal divisions relating to varying degrees of criticism of the EU (Mediapart chronicled it here ). Is this period of uncertainty a closed chapter for you now?
First, we must admit that we suffered a heavy electoral defeat. It is a setback for our political camp throughout Europe. We lost our Italian MEPs, Die LINKE declined in Germany, and so did also our Irish component.
We can’t turn a blind eye to this if we want to be in a position tomorrow to rebuild the left. We went through a month of confusion in June because we were undermined by the election result, and some of us still held some grudges formed under the previous mandate. And you have new MEPs coming in who don’t always understand what's going on. It took us a month to get going again.
To achieve this rejection of two commissioners-designate, you had to work together with Social Democratic, Green, and Liberal representatives. Will you be more willing to ally with other groups during this legislature?
The European Parliament has never been so fragmented. The number of elected S&D (Social Democrats) and EPP (Conservative) MEPs is not enough to form a majority again. Therefore, blocking free trade agreements such as that with Mercosur or evolving the Common Agricultural Policy into a tool for ecological transition cannot be achieved without the votes of the GUE’s 41 MEPs.
We want to be a political force with one foot inside and one outside the Parliament. We want to tear down the artificial wall that separates the EU Parliament from real life; we will do this by introducing new issues, for instance the issue of ‘Uberised’ workers. Together with my co-chair Martin Schirdewan (Die LINKE), we aim to give the GUE a modern image as a constructive driving force that is also capable of campaigning and drawing attention to specific issues – as we recently showed by denouncing conflicts of interest.
During his mandate as an MEP, Jean-Luc Mélenchon called for a more radical strategy. In his opinion, the deck is already stacked aganst the left which is doomed to be the losers in the European Parliament: to illustrate this, Mélanchon evoked the pointlessness of a representative of the GUE issuing a report of an investigation, since the compromises in the final version will blunt it.
The GUE elected representatives have always issued reports...
Is that so?
You will be able to see for yourself how committed our new MEPs feel about their role – with one foot inside the EP and one outside – transcribing our ideas into political reports, amendments, and legislative proposals – while carrying out public campaigns. For example, every week with my team, I shoot a video in which I show what is going on behind the scenes of the institution by selecting and disclosing an email I’ve gotten from some lobby group.
So you say some battles can be won in Parliament, even by an outnumbered left-wing political group?
Yes, there are few of them, but they exist. Above all, we bet on the idea that all fights are worth the effort. And if we lose, we will hold accountable those who voted against us. Even if we end up defeated, it's worth the try. Because we also have a whistleblower role.
You say you want to reinvigorate the GUE’s dynamics. Yet, in France, you recently got caught in a web of confusion at LFI: your list scored poorly at the European elections, LFI went through a stormy summer school session, and several party officials – including Mélenchon – were openly criticised. How does all of this affect your work at the EU level?
What you see as a period of confusion and tumult for LFI I see as a period of recomposition. This also involves the role we decide to play in Europe, by demonstrating that we are a credible opposition and a real driving force at the EU level and by showing that we are effectively rebuilding the left with our European partners; all of this may in time reinforce our positions in France as well.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon has criticised the judiciary for being politically biased. Are you going to launch a debate on this subject in the European Parliament?
Maybe. If we take a step back from the case of France, we see that the political manipulation of the courts is a growing issue in many European countries, where the prosecution obviously lacks real political independence from the ruling elites.
The Italian representatives of the Five Star Movement (M5S) are non-attached MEPs. Would you consider at some point talking them into swelling the ranks of the GUE?
They are currently talking essentially with the Greens. When we see how they are positioning themselves in the European Parliament, it is clear that their political positions are often quite close to ours, especially in economic matters. Now, there is of course a national consideration to take into account in Italy, since M5S governed in coalition with Matteo Salvini’s League. Therefore, we have to look at how they evolve in the coming months. Yes, we can enter into discussion with them. But without overlooking what happened in Italy. I remain convinced that the question of bringing them into the left camp should be addressed.
At 29, you are the youngest group president in the history of the European Parliament. And you are a woman. What are your first impressions of work meetings?
I sometimes face really strong forms of condescension. Yes, I am a young woman, so I do tick quite a lot of boxes. If you're not a man in a tie suit with greying hair, people in the halls of the EP don’t listen to you in the same way. There is still a lot of work here to be done. I feel like I am required to work twice or three times as much, just to be taken seriously. But it’s worth the effort.
originally published at Mediapart (full version)