EU takes legal action against UK over commissioner dispute

Incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen talks to European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans prior a ceremony to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the European Parliament in Brussels, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BRUSSELS – The European Union is piling pressure on Britain and has launched legal action against the departing member of the 28-country bloc over its decision not to name a candidate for the EU’s executive arm.

The EU Commission said in a statement Thursday that it sent a letter of formal notice to U.K. authorities after Britain’s envoy to Brussels confirmed the U.K. would not present a candidate to the bloc’s executive arm before the country’s Dec. 12 general election, despite its obligation to do so and repeated requests from the next president of the commission.

British authorities have until Nov. 22 “to provide their views,” the commission said.

“This short time period is justified by the fact that the next Commission must enter into office as soon as possible,” it added.

The new commission led by Ursula von der Leyen was initially scheduled to take office Nov. 1, the day after Britain was scheduled to leave the bloc. But European lawmakers rejected three commission candidates from other countries, delaying the process, and the EU agreed to delay Britain’s departure from the bloc until Jan. 31.

Sending a letter of formal notice is the first step in a lengthy legal procedure if the EU Commission deems a member state to be in contravention of EU rules. In the final stages of an infringement procedure the EU Commission can refer such a case to the bloc's highest court, which can in turn impose financial penalties.

The European Commission, the powerful executive arm of the EU that proposes laws and ensures they are implemented throughout the bloc, should have 28 members, including the president, one representing each member country.

But with Britain’s scheduled departure, Von der Leyen did not include a British commissioner in her proposed list when she unveiled her team in September. The 27 other states, however, insisted Britain should come up with a name when they granted the country another Brexit delay last month.

Von der Leyen twice wrote to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanding that someone be named. Johnson previously vowed not to do so.

After Britain’s envoy to Brussels, Tim Barrow, sent a letter to EU headquarters about London’s decision, the commission said it considers “that the U.K. is in breach of its EU Treaty obligations.”

According to the British envoy’s office, U.K. authorities told the EU that “pre-election guidance states the U.K. should not normally make nominations for international appointments during this period.”

The commission answered that member states should not invoke “provisions prevailing in its domestic legal system to justify failure to observe obligations arising under Union law.”

Meanwhile, two of the replacements for the rejected candidates from France, Hungary and Romania were approved by lawmakers assessing whether they were fit for the job.

The European Parliament press office said Thierry Breton, who was nominated after France's initial pick, Sylvie Goulard, was rejected last month over allegations she misused EU funds, was accepted as the next commissioner overseeing the EU's internal market, industrial policy, defense and the space industry.

Adina Valean of Romania, who has been endorsed for the transports portfolio, also passed the test. Oliver Várhelyi, the Hungarian candidate commissioner for the bloc’s enlargement, was asked to answer additional written questions by Monday.

Breton’s bid had raised fears of potential conflicts of interests because of his former role as CEO at Atos, a company with activities including big data management and cybersecurity. But the former French finance minister has resigned from his position and sold off his shares in Atos. He also told lawmakers he will recuse himself on cases relating to his former company.


Raf Casert, Lorne Cook and Mark Carlson contributed to this report.