BRUSSELS — In a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron's ambitions, his nominee for the next European Commission was rejected Thursday by EU lawmakers assessing whether she was fit for the job.
Sylvie Goulard, a close ally of Macron, had been nominated to be part of incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's new team with a high-profile position overseeing Europe's internal market, industry and defense.
Goulard failed to convince European parliament members who quizzed her twice about allegations she misused funds and consulted for a U.S. think tank while she served in the EU Parliament.
Goulard, from Renew Europe, a pro-business group of parties in the European Parliament, is the third commission candidate to be rejected after lawmakers dismissed two over suspicions of conflict of interest.
In a statement released soon after she was rejected with 82 votes against, 29 in favor, and one abstention, the French presidency rued the perceived "political game" that led to Goulard's dismissal.
The Elysee said "her competence and her commitment to Europe are not questioned."
While acknowledging her professional skills, many European Parliament lawmakers, known as MEPs, said Goulard was unable to properly address questions surrounding her workplace ethics.
"Throughout this process, Sylvie Goulard has had several opportunities to clarify the ethics questions hanging over her candidacy, and she has not been able to rectify these," said Marcel Kolaja, an MEP from the Greens.
"The fact that she didn't seem to see an ethical problem with taking large amounts of money from a U.S. think-tank while being an MEP raises serious concerns for someone wanting to hold one of the most high profile jobs in the EU."
Goulard has denied any wrongdoing in a case dating back to her years in the European parliament from 2009 to 2017 in which she was accused of using funds to pay a legislative assistant who actually worked for her former party. She has not been indicted in a French investigation but resigned as French defense minister when it was opened two years ago.
She told lawmakers the issue was related to overpayments she made after the employee stopped working for her and vehemently denied wrongdoing.
In September, she answered questions from French investigators.
"One can never be certain of what will happen, but normally I won't end up being charged," she said.
Meanwhile, Goulard was reportedly paid some 10,000 euros ($11,000) a month for consultancy work for the Berggruen Institute, a think tank in the U.S., during 2013-2015. She says it was not illegal.
"We obviously did not vote for Goulard," French far-left EU lawmaker Manon Aubry said. "EU citizens won't put their trust in their institutions when a Commissioner sees absolutely no problem in making 10,000 euros a month from a private lobby in addition to her (EU lawmaker) salary."
After an initial hearing left many lawmakers asking for more explanations, Goulard had to submit written answers to a set of questions before she was quizzed again.
Lawmakers' decision against her candidacy leaves Macron in an uncomfortable position.
Despite her judicial case, Goulard had been personally picked by Macron, who has portrayed himself as the champion of Europe since he came to power two years ago, pledging to reform the bloc and enhance its sovereignty.
Macron now needs to come up with another candidate who has to be vetted by von der Leyen and approved by lawmakers.
The new European Commission, which proposes EU laws and ensures they are implemented throughout the bloc, is set to take office on Nov. 1.