Smooth sailing in Parliament test for EU's next development boss

European Commissioner-designate for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen of Finland attends her hearing before the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. Photo by: REUTERS / Yves Herman

BRUSSELS — European Commissioner-designate for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen looks likely to have secured her place as the bloc’s top development official as of next month, after a hearing in the European Parliament Tuesday.

Representatives of political groups from the development committee met for a little under two hours following the hearing, eventually deciding to recommend that the Parliament accept Urpilainen’s nomination by incoming President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen. Their detailed assessment of Urpilainen’s performance will only be made public in mid-October, though the centrist party Renew Europe Group announced in a press release Tuesday that the overall decision was positive. Parliament is due to vote in plenary on the proposed commission as a whole on Oct. 23.

The confirmation hearings are one of the main check-and-balance powers of Parliament, with the relevant committees charged with assessing the “general competence, European commitment and personal independence” of each of the 26 commissioners proposed by von der Leyen, whose team is due to enter office on Nov 1. Deputies must also consider candidates’ “knowledge of their prospective portfolio and their communication skills.”

Former Finnish Finance Minister Urpilainen spent two-and-a-half hours in an open hearing with members of Parliament on issues ranging from the European Union’s 2021-2027 budget, the need for the European Commission to work more closely with parliament, and the pitfalls of linking countries’ access to aid with their help on stopping irregular migration.

Von der Leyen wrote to Urpilainen in her mission letter: “You should support efforts to reach comprehensive partnerships with countries of migration origin and transit, bringing together all instruments, tools and leverage. You should therefore be ready to adapt bilateral funding to achieve our objectives on migration management.”

On Tuesday, one of the most experienced development committee members, Charles Goerens, asked Urpilainen whether she could exclude making development aid strictly conditional on recipient countries’ cooperation on migration.

Urpilainen replied that she wanted to see development cooperation used to tackle the root causes of migration, something the commission has focused on since 2015 through the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

“At the same time, because I’m an honest person so I want to be honest, I think it’s not possible to think that with conditionality we can stop migration,” Urpilainen said. “That’s not possible because … development cooperation is only just a part of [these countries’] financial flows.” She added that the EU “should have one migration policy, and of course development cooperation is a part of that, but it can’t be the only tool in the package.”

Goerens told Devex after the hearing that he was satisfied with Urpilainen’s responses, in particular on the need to stimulate private sector investment in countries of origin for migrants, rather than relying solely on official development assistance.

The liberal MEP from Luxembourg also praised Urpilainen’s humility, political skills, and experience as a finance minister, which he said will serve her well in Brussels. “She understands the difficulties that she will have as well inside the commission,” Goerens said. “Not everybody thinks like her in terms of migration so she will have to impose herself, and she told the European Parliament what she will need: More funds, more support. I think she should make an alliance with the European Parliament to make sure that her objectives can succeed.”

Others on the development committee agreed. Udo Bullmann from Urpilainen’s own center-left Socialists & Democrats told Devex it was an “excellent performance,” adding that “she is going to become an asset for the new commission”; while Sophia in 't Veld, a liberal Dutch MEP, said “I think she’s fine.”

“She is not controversial. She is very committed to a fundamental-rights based approach to migration,” she added.

However, Hölvényi György, a Hungarian MEP from the center-right European People’s Party, said Urpilainen was an impressive communicator but that her answers were too general. Migration and security would be crucial areas in years to come, György said, adding that her current answer on those issues was “not enough.”

Beyond migration, Urpilainen scored points with MEPs by backing the idea of giving them greater scrutiny on development spending, both under EU trust funds as well as through the European Development Fund by keeping the latter within the EU’s 2021-2027 budget. She also vowed to defend deputies’ regular meetings with their counterparts from African, Caribbean, and Pacific states under the future EU-ACP accord now under negotiation.

On the need for greater private sector investment in Africa, Urpilainen called the outgoing commission’s Africa-Europe Alliance, “a good start” but said, “my duty of course is trying to look for new initiatives [on] how to get more private investments to Africa.”

Von der Leyen has asked Urpilainen to work with the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs on “a new comprehensive strategy for Africa” which should “create a partnership of equals and mutual interest.”

Asked by Devex how the new Africa strategy would differ from the EU’s 2018 alliance, its 2017 external investment plan and the consensus on development, Urpilainen told reporters: “The new approach is to have this holistic perspective … We also need to have the whole college [of commissioners] involved. I think that’s something we haven’t done earlier.”

In her opening statement Tuesday she said, “I never imagined that I would be here on this bench when I campaigned for Finnish membership of the European Union at the age of 19.” She went on to reference her involvement in European youth politics, studying music in Vienna under the EU’s Erasmus program, and her political life. She has been a teacher, worked in civil society, and as an MP, minister of finance, deputy prime minister — during which she volunteered to steer the national commission for sustainable development — and special representative on peace mediation. She is the first woman nominated by Finland for the role of European commissioner.

About the author

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    Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.