EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Slovakia's commissioner-designate, Maros Sefcovic, emerged relatively unscathed after a hearing by MEPs despite threats by centre-right MEPs in the run-up to the meeting that they would try and derail his candidacy over supposed anti-Roma comments made several years ago.
The Roma issue came up twice in the three-hour hearing on Monday (18 January) with Mr Sefcovic sticking to the line that he cannot remember ever having made derogatory comments towards the ethnic minority, which constitutes a small part of his own country's population.
The controversy concerned alleged comments he made while Slovakia's EU ambassador suggesting that Roma abuse the Slovak welfare system.
Conservative Spanish MEP Inigo Mendez de Vigo introduced the issue as the first question while Hungarian MEP Jozsef Szajer, instrumental in bringing it to the attention of the press five days ago, followed up in a more combative manner towards the end of the hearing.
Defending himself, Mr Sefcovic said the words were "clearly taken out of context" and that he "honestly did not remember it." He asked deputies to take his "track record" of taking pro-Roma initiatives into account.
Mr Szajer tried to inflict some damage by repeatedly asking how he could not remember making such a statement but the heat had been taken out the situation prior to the hearing, as Roma organisations had spoken out in favour of Mr Sefcovic, meaning he never looked like being in any political danger on the issue.
According to Scottish Socialist MEP David Martin, even the Roma community in Glasgow, while initially not knowing who he was, had "zero problem" with the Slovak politician once they had done some background checking.
Up for the portfolio of inter-institutional relations and administration, Mr Sefcovic faced questions on whether the parliament should keep its seats in both Brussels and Strasbourg, how he would involve the parliament in the setting up and staffing of the EU's new diplomatic service, how he would bring citizens closer to the EU and whether he will tighten up Brussels' voluntary register of lobbyists.
For most of the answers, Mr Sefcovic's training as a diplomat was clearly in evidence, with MEPs having a hard time pinning him down on concrete plans and for the most part failing to extract the "personal opinion" they were seeking.
This meant he remained tight-lipped on the issue of the 500-kilometre monthly trek that MEPs have to make from Brussels to the Alsatian capital in Strasbourg, where any change would have to be decided by member states - an issue several deputies raised.
His new role will mean he has to hit the ground running: His first major task is to reform the rules governing the hiring of staff to accommodate the setting-up of the diplomatic service, in measures to be finalised by the end of April.
"You do not want to hear the number of months it took," to get the staff regulation - which has to be worked out with unions, parliament and member states - agreed last time round, he remarked. "The time pressures are enormous," he added.
In a related issue, Mr Sefcovic agreed with his colleague Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, and indicated that he was against nominees to senior posts in the diplomatic service having to go through hearings in the parliament first. He said he was a "little bit hesitant" about the idea, saying the people needed to be "excellent diplomats, very good managers ... and very good civil servants," rather than political appointees.
But at other times he sweetened the message to the parliament, pledging to make the diplomatic service a "big success" and "fully accountable" to the EU assembly.
He promised to try and have a legislative proposal on the "citizens initiative" by March or April. Part of the new Lisbon Treaty, the initiative provides that a petition with 1 million signatures from EU citizens obliges the commission to consider a legal proposal, but it is fraught with implementation difficulties.
Other major tasks ahead of him include the 2012 reform of salaries and pensions system for EU staff - a system that has come under much scrutiny recently due to the economic crisis - and spearheading talks on a new five-year agreement between the EU institutions.
During the hearing, which was generally cordial, one of the most frank exchanges was with UK liberal MEP Andrew Duff, who asked him how his name was properly pronounced and whether he might be a "closet federalist."
Mr Sefcovic, happily answering the first question, was much more circumspect about the second. After some dancing around the subject, he replied that he was "not in the closet" but was a "strong supporter of an ever closer union."