Slovenian Commissioner-designate Janez Lenarčič at his hearing before the members of the European Parliament. Photo: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

BRUSSELS — Janez Lenarčič, a politically unaligned Slovenian diplomat, breezed through his confirmation hearing with members of the European Parliament Wednesday, winning their approval to become the European Union’s next humanitarian chief.

The 51-year-old, who was previously his country’s ambassador to the European Union and director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, elicited applause from members of the parliament’s development and environment committees at the end of an almost three-hour hearing. They asked him about preparedness for nuclear disasters and vector-borne diseases in Europe, as well as the need to agree a definition for climate refugees, the role of the private sector in humanitarian work, and the practice of EU states selling arms used in conflicts that Lenarčič’s department tries to alleviate.

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

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He set out three priorities for the “crisis management” portfolio in the incoming European Commission: intensifying disaster prevention efforts; enhancing the visibility of EU crisis management to build support among European citizens; and supporting people in need as quickly as possible, in full respect of humanitarian principles such as neutrality.

“We cannot afford to be perceived by anybody involved in an armed conflict as being on the other side because … we would endanger the affected population itself and, above all, we would endanger the safety of humanitarian workers,” he said.

Lenarčič’s test in parliament followed that of the commissioner-designate for development and the “international partnerships” portfolio, Jutta Urpilainen, who won the backing of MEPs after her hearing Tuesday. Members of the relevant parliament committees are mandated to assess the “general competence, European commitment, and personal independence” of each of the 26 commissioners nominated by incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose team is due to enter office on Nov. 1. They then make a recommendation to parliament on whether to accept the nomination.

Representatives from the parliament’s political groups met Thursday afternoon to discuss Lenarčič’s performance. Their full opinion will only be made public on Oct. 17, ahead of a plenary vote in parliament on the commission as a whole on Oct. 23, though parliament sources confirmed a report by the Slovenian Press Agency that Lenarčič had been approved.

“I like this concept [of] education in emergency. And I will promote it, I will work on it, I will expand it.”

— Janez Lenarčič, Slovenian Commissioner-designate

The diplomat’s experience counted against him in the eyes of some, with the left-wing GUE/NGL group of MEPs tweeting ahead of the hearing that the EU “needs radical change” and asking, “Can those like Janez Lenarčič, who has been working the corridors of the Brussels bubble for 15 years, really deliver?”

Asked by French GUE/NGL member Manon Aubry whether he supports calls for an embargo on arms sales from European governments to countries accused of violating international humanitarian law in places like Yemen, Lenarčič said he intended “to work with my fellow commissioners in order to look into this matter more consistently.”

“We should avoid aggravating humanitarian crises through our actions in the area of arms exports,” he said, while cautioning that “it’s not the European Union that exports arms, it’s member states.”

On climate refugees, he committed to work “especially with our partners in the United Nations system, to achieve [a] good, workable definition for these people who clearly are in need of assistance.”

On education in emergencies, championed by his predecessor, he said: “I like this concept [of] education in emergency. And I will promote it, I will work on it, I will expand it, because …  when September comes, children, boys and girls, have to go to school.”

And on the role of the private sector, Lenarčič said “no one should be in a position to make a business … out of humanitarian assistance,” but that there is a role for the private sector. He cited the expansion of cash transfers through debit cards under the previous commission, adding, “I can easily imagine that [the] private sector, a banking institution, would be kind enough not to charge all its usual fees and things like that in order to make its own little contribution to the humanitarian assistance, for example.”

Swede Tomas Tobé, the center-right chair of the development committee, praised Lenarčič in a press conference Wednesday night for giving “a lot of clear answers.”

But the far-right Identity and Democracy Group was unimpressed by Lenarčič. Over cries of “shame” from other deputies, Bernhard Zimniok, a German MEP, asked Lenarčič: “What specific measures do you have planned — and I’m talking about a coming crisis here — to really protect our citizens? Particularly from these illegal migrants that are being brought into the country. And we have to consider the possible health risks as well, the diseases they could bring in, such as Ebola.”

Lenarčič responded that it was no longer accurate to refer to a “migration crisis” facing Europe and that the issue of arrivals into the EU is dealt with “by the commissioner for home affairs where it belongs … I, as a future crisis coordinator, don’t think that this could be now treated as an emergency situation where an emergency response would be in order.”

When urged later by another MEP not to listen to “xenophobic comments,” Lenarčič replied, “I, of course, listen to all the comments but that certainly doesn’t mean I agree with all of them. On the contrary, there were some with which I clearly disagree.”

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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.