BRUSSELS - Latvia's commissioner-designate Ingrida Udre failed to impress MEPs during her hearing on Oct. 7, possibly earning her a place near the top of a list of "commissioner undesirables" in the subsequent haggling between the European Commission and Europarliament, the EU's executive and legislative branches that are currently forming the next commission.
In a letter to Europarliament President Josep Borrell Fontelles obtained by The Baltic Times, MEPs expressed doubt about Udre's integrity and openness and recommended the commission president-designate conduct a full investigation of "financial irre gularities in the funding of her political party" - a reference to the Greens and Farmers Union.
"I'm not convinced that she is the right person," Evelyn Gebhardt, member of the Socialist Group (PSE), told The Baltic Times. "She didn't say anything in her first statement about the things being said against her. I think the most important thing in the European Union is openness and transparency - and that means saying everything completely and from the beginning," she explained. Gebhardt added, however, that she would need more time to make a final decision on Udre's candidacy.
Members of the European's People's Party (PPE), the right-wing faction and the largest in the Europarliament, and Confederal Group of European United Left, the fifth largest group, also expressed concerns about whether Udre was the right person for the tax and customs portfolio given both her lack of experience and unwillingness to confront accusations against her.
Immediately MEPs started grilling Udre on the multiple allegations against her, and throughout the three-hour hearing they returned to the issues of campaign finance, Euroskepticism and tax harmonization since the Latvian designate had failed to sound convincing. At one point the chairman of the customs panel, Phillip Whitehead of the PSE, even made a personal plea to Udre, asking the designate to be more forthcoming in answers about her past. "A commissioner must be beyond reproach," he told Udre.
One female MEP reminded Udre that, while it was always nice to see a woman taking up a commissioner's post, it was precisely because of a woman that the European Commission had to resign in 1999.
Udre stiffly tried to escape the tough questions by either adopting an accommodating tone or giving vague answers. Not once did she delve into specifics, which, when the discussion was on campaign finance, apparently bothered many MEPs. Udre blamed the finance scandal, which took place in 2003, on the period's election law and on campaign donors who failed to declare their sources of income.
One MEP alluded to Juta Strike, head of Latvia's anti-corruption bureau that led the Greens and Farmers investigation, claiming that Udre had helped "fire" her. Udre pretended not to know who the MEP was referring to.
What's more, some of the commissioner-designate's answers appeared to be disingenuous. When asked about her nomination, Udre said the government supported her. In reality, support was restricted to Prime Minister Indulis Emsis, with coalition partners backing their own candidates. While defending her Euroskeptical position, Udre led MEPs to believe that the Greens and Farmers had invited Pat Cox to Latvia, when actually the former European Parliament president had visited all 10 candidate countries irrespective of individual parties' wishes.
Confronted with her dismal popularity rating in Latvia (she is the third least popular politician), Udre said that "we're all politicians" and that the popularity of politicians has fluctuated dramatically. She pointed out that there was a time when she was the second or third most popular politician in the country, and that Latvians still had faith in the Saeima (Latvia's parliament), where she is speaker.
Twice she said that MEPs had been misinformed.
The apparent flip-flopping even irked one of Udre's compatriots, Valdis Dombrovksis of the PPE (and the opposition New Era party at home), who asked for clarification on her tax harmonization position. He claimed she was telling MEPs that she supported tax sovereignty while previously she had said on the Latvian political talk-show "Kas notiek Latvija?" (What's happening in Latvia) that she was for evening tax rates among EU member states.
Udre responded to Dombrovksis by saying that he had misunderstood her.
But Latvian MEPs were largely supportive of Udre's performance. Georgs Andrejevs of the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats and Rihards Piks of the PPE said they were impressed by how Udre, 45, handled the intensive interrogation.
Even MEPs from the right-wing For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party in Latvia, strong critics of Udre's ruling coalition, were reluctant to speak harshly of the commissioner-designate. At one point during the questioning Whitehead even asked Guntars Krasts, former prime minister, if he would like to pose a question to Udre, but Krasts declined.
"It wouldn't be wise to raise allegations or to criticize. I had some bad things to say, but I decided not to get involved," Krasts told The Baltic Times, explaining that his approach was to leave domestic disputes in Latvia.
Udre's nomination has been dogged by scandal from the very beginning. It culminated in an impromptu demonstration, organized by NGOs and later criticized by President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, outside the Parliament building in Riga. For weeks the event polarized Latvian society, eventually resulting in a nasty row between the NGO community and several government ministers. NGOs struck back by flooding Europarliament deputies with letters, and the European press with reports about Udre's past and questionable links.
Since the commission, led by President Jose Manuel Barroso, is an all-or-nothing proposal, European Parliament members cannot dismiss select commissioner-designates. They can, however, bargain with Barroso and ask that he replace certain commissioners who they are dissatisfied with. It is expected that a final deal on the commission make-up will be made this week.