The big day is here for the 26 commissioners-designate. Their hearings before the European Parliament begin on 11 January, in Brussels, and will run until 19 January in Strasbourg (see calendar). The stress is palpable because the stakes are huge: the candidates will be judged by MEPs, who have the right to decide whether or not they are qualified to be part of the future Barroso II team.

More than a third of the candidates have already been through EP hearings, but the others are new to the experience. They have had the entire Christmas holiday period and the start of January to prepare, to bone up on their portfolios and become familiar with the workings of the EU institutional machinery and the expectations of MEPs. Their future President, Jose Manuel Barroso, has organised several meetings to brief them before the oral exam' and make them feel at ease. The final working seminar was on 7 January: the four-hour meeting, followed by a working lunch, was spent entirely on preparing the hearings. So tension has been building in the run-up to this opening day.

The European Parliament has also been preparing on its side. Its administrative services have been busy for months organising the process and MEPs went back home for the Christmas break with the commissioners' written answers to the questionnaire sent out by Parliament in November (see separate article). MEPs know that their institution has gained considerable power over the years and that the hearings are an instrument giving them a certain political and democratic control over the Commission. So it is crucial not to botch the job or to be overly indulgent.

Of the 26 commissioners-designate, there are rumours of possible difficulties for two. The first is the Bulgarian candidate Rumiana Jeleva, assigned the international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response portfolio. A former MEP (EPP) and current Foreign Minister, Jeleva could get entangled in a case of conflict of interests because her husband is a shareholder in a major real estate firm operating on the Bulgarian coast, a region rife with corruption and a strong mafia presence. Her lack of experience is also an issue.

Other rumours concern the Hungarian candidate, Laszlo Andor, assigned the employment and social affairs portfolio, because he allegedly had close ties with the Communist regime in Budapest in the past, which does not please all the political groups. The Commission president stood up for him as soon as his...

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