BRUSSELS - The Baltic states last week underwent a crucial test of integration preparedness, as the countries' three commissioners-designate survived a prolonged drilling by European parliamentarians intent on seeing that the EU's 10 newest members were ready to take up their positions on the European Commission, the union's executive branch.
To the relief of many Balts, the hearings for the 10 nominated commissioners turned out to be relatively mild with few difficult questions. A friendly, homecom-inglike atmosphere dominated the proceedings, which were used by MEPs to evaluate the preparedness of the individuals who will carry out the day-to-day operations of the world's largest economic bloc.
"This is an important milestone," Pat Cox, the president of the European Parliament, said after the hearings had ended. "If you are looking for red cards, you will not find any here today."
For the 10 candidates, many of whom hail from former Soviet-bloc countries, the main message was a return to Europe.
Latvia's Sandra Kalniete was first to pass the trial on April 13, answering MEPs' questions for an hour-and-a-half.
Her Baltic colleagues, Lithuania's former Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite and Siim Kallas, Estonia's former prime minister, had their hearings during the following days. While Kalniete has a strong background in foreign affairs, Kallas and Grybauskaite are trained economists.
All three Baltic commissioners-designate spoke mainly in English after reading introductory statements in their native languages.
Grybauskaite, who will head culture and education on the commission, saw her academic background in economics, including in both Moscow and Washington, D.C., as a benefit for her position as a commissioner for culture.
"Economics and finance should not be considered in separation from education and culture: economic decisions clearly influence possibilities to implement priorities in education and culture, [and] successful implementation in culture and education contributes to strengthening the EU's competitiveness and the goals set in the Lisbon strategy," Grybauskaite answered in writing to questions submitted before the hearings.
A Lithuanian parliamentary observer in Brussels, Birute Vesaite, asked the commissioner (in English) whether she was planning to run for the Lithuanian presidency.
Grybauskaite did not answer the question.
Performances of the three Baltic candidates were largely positive.
Kalniete "is not only above average, but her performance was way above average," Giorgos Katiforis, a Greek MEP and vice-chairman of the European Socialists in the European Parliament, told The Baltic Times.
Privately, however, there were MEPs who expressed reservations.
One MEP called Kalniete's performance "weak," saying Kalniete was unprepared.
Kalniete told this newspaper the following day (see interview on Page 22) that she had been informed of the technical nature of the questions only two days before the hearing.
"It was the one of the most difficult moments of my life," Kalniete, commissioner designate for Fisheries and Agriculture, told reporters later.
Grybauskaite, by contrast, faced an easier time and preformed better in English than her Latvian colleague.
Despite expectations that Siim Kallas Estonia's commissioner designate would face questions about his 17 years in the Communist Party, the former Estonian prime minister was not approached about that part of his past. (His Czech counterpart, Pavel Telicka, was why he decided to change sides, since he too was in the Communist Party in the late 1980s.)
Kallas was, however, asked a question about his work at Estonia's Central Bank, where the equivalent of $10 million disappeared.
"All kinds of compromising materials have been searched for," Kallas replied, adding that nothing was found after 10 years. "The case is closed-it's over."
Writing in her review of the Estonian, Christa Randzio-Plath, chairwoman of the committee of economic and monetary affairs, said Kallas, who will be in charge of economic affairs on the commission, "has excellent qualifications, combining an excellent university background as an economist and varied and broad experience in the private and public sector, mainly relating to economic and financial issues. This gives him very adequate competencies to deal with the relevant issues he will be faced with at the European level."
Generally, most of the criticism was directed at the candidates from Malta, Cyprus and Slovenia.
The EP will vote the 10 commissioners designate en bloc - not individually, after which they will have a six-month mandate.
After European Parliament elections in June, which will increase the size of the body to 732 members, a new 25-strong commission will be designated and a new commission president appointed by the heads of government of the 25 member countries. The president's appointment will be effective only if ratified by the European Parliament in July.
The appointment of the entire commission will become a reality only once the European Parliament approves it in a second vote to be held in late October. But this vote will be preceded, in early October, by a completely new round of hearings, where all the commissioners - including those from older member states - will be subjected to another round hearings that could last up to two days each.
Parliament sources foresee that this hearing is likely to be much more substantial and technical than the one faced by the Baltic commissioners designate this time.
The six-month mandates for the 10 accession countries' commissioners will be largely introductory in nature, as they will work as "shadows" to more experienced commissioners.
Technically, any of the member states may chose a different candidate before the next confirmation hearing, although it is unlikely that new candidates would be chosen.