The idea of an EU tax, a review and possible prolongation of EU's multi-annual budget, funding for the EU external action service and naming and shaming Member States that fail to comply with rules for spending EU funds, were some of the key questions put to Budgets Commissioner Designate, Janusz Lewandowski (Poland) by the Budgets and Budgetary Control committees.
Several MEPs set out high expectations of Mr Lewandowski, a former chair of Parliament's Budgets Committee who helped negotiate the current "financial perspective" spending plans.
Introducing an EU tax
Anne Jensen (ALDE, DK) and others questioned Mr Lewandowski closely about his attitude to the idea of an EU tax.
"Europe is not ready for a European tax; it could prove detrimental for our links with the citizens" he said.
Pressed further by Derk Jan Eppink (ECR, BE), he added "we should respect the need for unanimity in the Council when it comes to decisions on own resources. If we introduce this, it has to be in line with simplicity, fiscal neutrality and the cost of collecting. There are different ways of taxing with an aim of increasing own recourses. I am not against the idea."
Replying to a direct question by Miguel Portas (GUE/NGL, PT), Mr Lewandowski added that he was very open to new ideas for financing the EU budget, including a possible "Tobin tax" on financial transactions.
EU's future multi-annual budget
A key area of interest was the upcoming review of the "financial perspective" (EU's multi-annual budget, currently covering the years 2007-2013). MEPs wanted to know whether Mr Lewandowski backed Parliament's suggestion that this period be prolonged to 2015 or 2016, so as to make it match the terms of the Commission and the Parliament.
"A prolongation of the current financial perspective is one of many possible solutions to match the financial perspectives with the mandate of the Parliament. But it is not the only one",he replied..
As to the timing of the mid-term review of spending plans, Mr Lewandowski reiterated Commission President José Manuel Barroso's view that it should come after the presentation of EU's new 2020 Strategy (to help the EU recover from the crisis and speed its transition towards a smart and green economy), scheduled for June. This would make the earliest possible date for the review would be July this year.
Helga Trüpel (Greens/EFA, DE) asked whether Mr Lewandowski had changed his opinion on how environmental policy could turn out to be detrimental to economy.
"Green industry is one of the best promises for the future", said Mr Lewandowski, citing the need to fund the development of new technologies and the example of Poland's efforts to meet EU standards despite being heavily dependent on coal.
The Commmissioner-designate also said that the EU needs a "key orientation" or leitmotiv for the coming budget period, noting that earlier ones had focused on the single market, monetary union, EU enlargement and the Lisbon strategy.
"One lesson of the past is that the earlier we agree on a policy priority, the easier it is to equip it with financial means. We need a key orientation for the coming financial perspectives. Maybe it could be the environment or climate change", he suggested.
Asked by Stephane Le Foll (S&D) whether he "felt comfortable with this small reduced budget", Mr Lewandowski said that the reality of post-crisis Europe must be taken into account. "My realistic assumption is that we will deal with scarce resources in the reality of the growing needs", he said, adding that Member States would always find it easier to cut contributions to the common budget than national ones, and that he would have to be pragmatic about that.
Budget control - naming and shaming
Budget Control Committee chairman Luigi de Magistris (ALDE, IT), asked Mr Lewandowski whether he would consider "naming and shaming" Member States which breach EU spending rules. "This is very unpopular in the Council. I am in between" Council and the Parliament on this, he replied.
The EU's key budget control problems are in cohesion and external policy, said Mr Lewandowski in reply to a question from Ryszard Czarnecki (ECR, PL).
Ville Itälä (EPP, FI) wanted to know how the Commissioner-designate planned to tackle the 11% error level in structural fund spending and marked differences in error levels among Member States.
"11% is not tolerable. On the other hand, we should take note of the improvements made in 2004 - 2008, when the overall rate of error was reduced. One problem is that 80% of structural funds are managed by Member States under multi-level governance arrangements. We should also remember that not all errors are fraud" noted Mr Lewandowski. .
Changes in the agriculture budget
Anne Jensen (ALDE, DK) asked the Commissioner-designate about proposed changes in the budget for EU's common agricultural policy (CAP).
Mr Lewandowski replied that his "personal stance is not to nationalise the common agricultural policy, which would be the end of the CAP", but that the EU should nonetheless sharpen its focus on voluntary assistance provided by Member States to farmers.
Replying to another by Agriculture Committee Chair Paulo de Castro (S&D, IT) about future resources for the CAP, Mr Lewandowski noted predictions that the CAP's share of the EU budget was predicted to decline from 70% in the 1980s to 33% by 2013.
Financing EU external action
Jens Geier (S&D, DE) asked the Commissioner-designate what he could do to ensure that the EU diplomatic service, the European External Action Service (EEAS), would not be dominated by Member States..
Mr Lewandowski replied that irrespective of how the EEAS is funded, it would be "fully accountable to the Parliament" and subject to its discharge.
Although he favoured using "fast track" measures to get the EEAS up and running quickly, Mr Lewandowski asked MEPs not to test his "ability as an honest broker" between Parliament and Member States on this issue alone.
Polish MEP Pawel Kowal (ECR, PL) stressed the need for more budgetary resources to fund EU eastern neighbourhood policy projects to enable the EU to match Russia's influence in countries on the EU's eastern borders. Mr Lewandowski admitted that foreign policy had always been a "headache" in all former budget negotiations, is it is prone to emergencies that demand action beyond agreed budgetary limits.
"One should manage the €600 million from the existing envelope wisely and put this funding in line with additional funding that may come outside the budget, but I do not see a chance for rapid growth here", he said.
"We need to strike a balance between innovation and the traditional approach, and this is true of cohesion as well", said Mr Lewandowski in reply to a question from Regional Development Committee Chair Danuta Hübner (EPP, PL) about possible changes in cohesion policy.
He noted a "paradigm shift" in cohesion policy, which, he said, should not be only about redistribution but about exploiting the potential of the regions. Ms Hübner pointed out that most climate change or innovation policy initiatives require action at regional level.
In the chair: Alain Lamassoure (PPE, FR)