Moscovici set new quiz as EU executive hits political turbulence

By Alastair Macdonald BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Pierre Moscovici, the French Socialist nominated to run the EU's economic affairs, must answer a new round of written questions from skeptical conservative lawmakers after the vetting of a new EU executive became entangled in political score-settling. Following a late-night decision in the European Parliament's economic committee, the former French finance minister was spared the fate of Britain's Jonathan Hill, who was ordered to face a second hearing in the same committee next week to defend his suitability to oversee banking and financial services. But, like Hill and at least two other nominees, Moscovici must respond to further detailed policy questions by Sunday evening before deputies will consider approving him. Center-right and liberal lawmakers gave Moscovici a severe grilling on Thursday, challenging his ability to discipline Paris for missing EU deficit targets it missed on his watch and trying to make him condemn France's 2015 budget. On Friday, the center-right parliamentary group, the European People's Party (EPP), tweeted: "Moscovici to resit. He will have to answer further questions before being assessed." EPP members said they had been incensed when the Greens and the main center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group held up the confirmation of Spanish conservative Miguel Arias Canete as energy and climate change commissioner. The Spaniard squirmed under a barrage of questions about his family's oil business links and late changes in the financial statement he submitted to parliament. That, lawmakers said, prompted retaliation against Moscovici and now a further round of tit-for-tat "hostage-taking" that threatens to delay the installation of a new European Commission - due by Nov. 1 - under incoming president Jean-Claude Juncker. DEMOCRACY OR GRANDSTANDING? Some in parliament have hailed a "democratic turn" of events in the fraying of a "grand coalition" between the main center-right and center-left parties under the guidance of Juncker, the center-right former prime minister of Luxembourg, and parliamentary speaker Martin Schulz, a German Social Democrat. But Commission officials are irritated by what they see as political grandstanding by a parliament keen to wield one of its key powers, five months after European voters returned a phalanx of anti-EU deputies in elections across the bloc. "It is a political game between the parties in parliament - taking hostages and exchanging them," one EU official said. "In any other democracy you have parliamentary elections, then a government is formed on the basis of a coalition agreement and that's it. Not a circus like this." Parliament has also asked Tibor Navracsics, a conservative former justice minister in a Hungarian government accused of trampling on civil rights and media pluralism, to answer further questions before considering his suitability as commissioner for education, culture, youth and citizenship. Among the questions, according to a letter from Schulz to Juncker distributed by a member of parliament, was a request for Navracsics to "publicly condemn" laws on the media and judiciary proposed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government. European bodies criticized those laws as anti-democratic. Vera Jourova, the Czech nominee for the justice portfolio who is backed by the centrist ALDE group in parliament, must also answer written questions by Sunday evening, putting her party into the mix in next week's horse trading. Former Slovenian Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek, the centrist nominee as vice-president for energy union, also faces a bumpy ride in her hearing on Monday with critics saying she nominated herself after her government lost an election. As a British Conservative, Hill lacks the backing of one of the main political groups since Prime Minister David Cameron took his party out of the EPP and it now sits in a smaller bloc. But many lawmakers and officials believe a reluctance in Brussels to alienate an already Eurosceptic Britain will mitigate any attempt to block him. Arias Canete does not face additional policy questions but the S&D has postponed a vote on him until the legal committee clarifies his financial statement. Lawmakers said three outcomes are possible next week: a political package deal under which all nominees go through; an agreement to replace one or two who aroused particular concerns about their ethics or values; or a reshuffle of Juncker's team to switch problem nominees to lower-profile portfolios. "The worst case scenario that we keep all the bad candidates because they cut a deal cannot be ruled out," said Sylvie Goulard, a French liberal lawmaker on the economic committee. (Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski and Paul Taylor. Writing by Alastair Macdonald.; Editing by Paul Taylor/Mike Peacock)