Rough ride for Sofia's candidate for commission

 

CONFIRMATION HEARINGS for the incoming European Commission descended into disarray last night as Bulgaria’s foreign minister struggled to face down claims that she was less than frank in declarations about her business affairs.

Rumiana Jeleva, who has been selected for the humanitarian aid portfolio, said she had sold her interest in a consulting firm and no longer was involved in it.

Green and Liberal MEPs, however, maintained that official records in Bulgaria suggested otherwise. Confronted with questions on the humanitarian situation in various global hotspots, Ms Jeleva’s vague responses in some cases also drew criticism from MEPs.

With political groups in the parliament seeking further details, she now faces the prospect of renewed scrutiny of her official declarations by the commission.

At a meeting last night, the groups agreed to write to commission chief José Manuel Barroso and the commission’s lawyers to ask whether they are satisfied Ms Jeleva has met her obligations concerning her financial declarations.

She was the second prospective member of Mr Barroso’s new EU executive to come under pressure. A weak performance earlier yesterday by incoming taxation and anti-fraud commissioner Algirdas Semeta of Lithuania prompted complaints from Socialist MEPs.

Although five days of hearings remain, there is already speculation that the parliament may seek to exploit any weakness on his team to force Mr Barroso to change some of his portfolio allocations. MEPs, who have the power to reject the entire team if any nominee is deemed unsuitable, forced a mini-reshuffle in 2004.

Ms Jeleva, whose husband’s business interests have attracted media scrutiny in Bulgaria and Germany, was put on the defensive from the outset of her hearing before the parliament’s development committee.

“Everything – rumours, allegations against myself, my husband – is totally unfounded,” she said. She had declared all she was advised to declare in her submissions as an MEP from 2007 and in her submission as incoming commissioner.

She said her declarations on her commercial interests had been cleared by the appropriate parliamentary committee in Bulgaria.

This garnered little sympathy from certain members of the committee, although Fine Gael MEP Gay Mitchell said it was not their function to act as “bloodhounds”.

After Ms Jeleva accused Bulgarian liberal MEP Antonyia Parvanova of spreading misinformation about her, Ms Parvanova told the committee that public records in Bulgaria suggested she was the owner of the consulting company in question. “The state registry or the official journal is not a rumour,” Ms Parvanova said.

Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini said the integrity of Ms Jeleva’s declarations was fundamental to the European Parliament’s judgment of her suitability. “It is right and proper to await final conclusions on the transparency and accuracy of her financial declarations. It is clear, however, that MEPs expect substantial answers regarding her business interests and her declarations of them,” she said.

Committee chairwoman Eva Joly made heavy weather of the session, ordering the distribution of a dossier submitted by Ms Jeleva only to order its return minutes later after a complaint.

Ireland’s incoming commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn faces the research and innovation committee this evening.