The Best and Brightest? Not Always for E.U. Leadership Jobs

BRUSSELS — One official wore blackface. Another could not answer basic questions about his portfolio. A third has been accused of misusing public funds while in office, and is still being investigated.

Disgraced politicians? Hardly. All three are likely to be in charge of major policy areas across Europe for the next half-decade, potentially directing thousands of civil servants for the world’s richest and biggest single market.

In Brussels, a bureaucratic changing of the guard is underway, as the European Union’s new leadership team, known as the European Commission, is being finalized. If some commissioners are highly qualified individuals wielding immense power, not all candidates are drawn from the best and brightest in a pool of half a billion people.

Some are political castoffs from governing parties in the different European Union member states. The chief qualification for others is being close to powerful national leaders or politicians. Still others are being rewarded for past service with a job that can pay $25,000 a month and bring lifelong benefits.

“Sometimes it is a way to reward an ally,” said Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a senior researcher with the London-based organization Centre for European Reform. “Or it might be a way to send a competitor away for at least five years. Smaller states increasingly send real heavyweights, like former prime ministers.”

The European Union, an economic and political grouping of 28 states, is the world’s greatest experiment in democratic federalism. It is also regularly accused of being run by faceless bureaucrats who too often are not accountable to ordinary citizens — a critique that can sting when the bloc’s most powerful officials arrive unelected and, in some cases, tainted by questionable pasts.

This time, though, the most democratic part of the system in Brussels is pushing back. The European Parliament, the only union-wide institution directly elected by the people, is putting commissioner candidates through an unusually tough vetting process and, in turn, trying to dispel its reputation as the weakest branch in the European system.

“It is the moment that the branch that represents citizens gets to hold the executive to account,” said Rosa Balfour, a senior researcher at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

(Critics also point out that the Parliament itself is not without faults. Many of its members are also accused of corruption.)

The new commissioners will take power on Nov. 1, under a new president, Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen. But the process of filling out her team begins outside Brussels, in the different national capitals.

Each national government chooses one candidate to become a commissioner. While Ms. von der Leyen interviewed all candidates, it is unusual for a new president to reject someone. Her influence comes in deciding, after elaborate horse trading, which portfolio goes to whom.

Then the candidates must answer questions from lawmakers in the Parliament, who have the right to reject them but use it sparingly. One nominee was rejected in 2014, while two withdrew in 2009 to avoid rejection.

But this year’s crop is uniquely controversial. Some have just narrowly escaped charges for corruption or fraud. Two candidates had misconduct investigations against them closed mere days before their parliamentary hearings. Three were ordered to face a second parliamentary hearing after poor performances first time round.

Last week, the Parliament’s judicial committee for the first time took rejected two nominees outright — those from Hungary and Romania — amid concerns about their personal finances, including large undeclared loans and suspicious links to Russia. Both denied any wrongdoing and decried the Parliament’s decision.

Two other candidates floundered on the basis of competence. Janus Wojciechowski, a Polish nominee slated to become the next agriculture commissioner, struggled in his hearing on Wednesday to answer basic questions about European Union farm policy. He was told to leave and return after doing more homework to better respond to the Parliament’s queries.

Some well-known, big-hitting candidates are under pressure too.

France’s star nominee, Sylvie Goulard, a longtime member of the European Parliament, is the choice of President Emmanuel Macron to be in charge of Europe’s industrial policy. But her finances are now under scrutiny in hearings. Only two years ago, she resigned as French defense minister after she was accused of providing a no-show job to an assistant at her office.

An investigation in France and in Brussels into the incident have only contributed to the ambiguity of her situation. She hasn’t been charged, but she hasn’t been cleared, either, although she has since repaid the 45,000 euros, or $50,000, the job for the assistant cost.

“Honestly, I can’t understand why you couldn’t be a minister in your country, but you can stand as commissioner,” quipped Evelyne Gebhardt, a German lawmaker for the socialist party, at Ms. Goulard’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

During those hearings, other lawmakers questioned the lucrative consulting work she did for the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute, a research organization founded by the billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen, even as she served in Parliament from 2013 to 2016. At one point, under a barrage of questions, Ms. Goulard blurted out: “I’m clean!”

As with Mr. Wojciechowski, Ms. Goulard was sent away with homework. If approved, she would control the portfolio of industrial, defense and digital policy, and lawmakers have asked for written answers about her legislative proposals. Only then will they decide on her appointment.

The Belgian nominee, Didier Reynders, a political heavyweight in his home country, is nominated as justice commissioner. But over the past weeks, he has faced questions about his racist portrayal of black people.

A minister in the Belgian government for more than 20 years, Mr. Reynders wore blackface in 2015, dressing up as a so-called “black king” to collect money in the streets of Brussels as part of an annual charity held among elite Belgium society, even royalty.

The practice harks back to the 19th century, when Belgium brutally ruled and exploited the land and people of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing millions.

When members of the Congolese diaspora called the parade deeply offensive, Mr. Reynders defended himself by tweeting a picture of himself in blackface and writing on his blog that “it is with joy and good humor that I have attended.” He never apologized.

Mr. Reynders was also the subject of a preliminary investigation by the Brussels prosecutor’s office into accusations of corruption made earlier this year by a whistle-blower from the intelligence community, who questioned his links to Russia.

He also faced accusations that he had improperly benefited from deals with Kazakhstan; that he profited from the construction of Belgium’s embassy in Kinshasa; and that he inappropriately released $2 billion of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s frozen funds in Belgium.

The preliminary investigation was closed late Friday before Mr. Reynders’s hearing, and no charges were brought against him.

“I learned that serious accusations were made against me by a person who was deliberately trying to damage my reputation,” Mr. Reynders said at his hearing.

He added, “I deny all the allegations.”

Not every candidate arrives with so much baggage, and the system often produces people who go on to become major players on the global stage.

Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian who served as international cooperation and humanitarian aid commissioner, went on to become the chief executive of the World Bank. Then, last week, she became the first leader of the International Monetary Fund, the world’s lender of last resort, to come from a country the fund had bailed out.

And Margrethe Vestager was promoted away to Brussels in 2014 from her native Denmark as her star rose fast in a coalition government there partly because, some insiders claim, she was threatening to outshine more senior politicians.

Over the past five years she has become a household name in Europe as the most powerful tech regulator in the world, slapping billions of dollars in fines on major American tech firms like Google. She will have an even bigger portfolio in this new term.

Ms. Vestager is also rumored to be one of the models for the fictional Danish prime minister portrayed in the globally acclaimed Danish political series “Borgen.”

The episode in which the prime minister decides on Denmark’s European commissioner is titled “In Brussels, No One Can Hear You Scream.”