Sir Julian King, the man likely to be the United Kingdom’s final European Commissioner, insisted in a Parliament hearing that if MEPs confirmed him in the post his loyalty would be to the European Union rather than Great Britain.
King was put forward as the EU’s new security boss by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker after the resignation of Jonathan Hill in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
The hearing with Sir Julian King took place in the evening of 12 September, ahead of a European Parliament vote that will be held on Thursday over whether to back him.
The Security Union portfolio was created by Juncker after brutal terror attacks in France and Belgium this year and last.
Hill’s influential job as financial services commissioner has passed to Valdis Dombrovskis, the former prime minister of Latvia, who is now responsible for the regulation of the City of London.
“Personally I have always been proud to be British and to be European. I see no contradiction between the two,” King said at his hearing before the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) in Strasbourg.
But King said that the decision of the British people, who voted 52% in favour of Brexit, had to be respected.
“I am not here to defer to or represent the position of the UK Government this evening but I think Prime Minister [Theresa] May has been crystal clear in respecting the results of the referendum,” he said.
King, currently British ambassador to France, spoke French at the beginning of the hearing. He told MEPs, “When the UK leaves, my job here will cease.”
He added, “For avoidance of any doubt, if confirmed I will fulfil my task to best of ability to European interest and nothing but the European interest.
“The only way to defeat criminals and terrorist is by working together.”
Brexit will deprive the EU of a major, nuclear-armed NATO military power with vast counter-terror experience at home and abroad but officials on both sides have stressed that cooperation in security will remain a key priority.
British Eurosceptic MEPs Gerard Batten, of UKIP, demanded how King would serve two masters at the same time, especially as any Commissioner must swear an oath of loyalty to the EU.
“Why on Earth is Britain nominating a Commissioner at all, given that the last one had to resign as his position was untenable?” he asked. “Listening to you this evening sounds very much like business as usual.”
Independent MEP Janice Atkinson, who left UKIP in disgrace after an expenses scandal and joined Marine Le Pen’s Europe of Freedom and Nations Group, added, “You work for us, you don’t work for them.”
King said, “I take the oath very seriously and I will respect and abide by the oath which means I will be completely independent … and I will not seek any instruction from any government on how to fulfil my duties.
“It doesn’t look to me like this is a dossier that is part time of second class. I respect President Juncker’s confidence and I will repay it.”
King risked controversy in Britain by backing EU plans to introduce a travel information and authorisation system. The scheme, which is being designed for countries outside of the Schengen passport-free area, will likely apply to Britain when it enters into force.
British Home Secretary Amber Rudd recently refused to guarantee that Brits would not be subject to the system, which could see Brits charged to enter the EU.
“The proposed entry exit system is important to improve effectiveness of border checks,” King said.
If confirmed on Thursday, King will work under the supervision of Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, of the Netherlands, until Brexit.
King was grilled over issues such as online privacy, firearms control, radicalisation and the decision by EU courts to stop a passenger data-sharing deal to fight terrorism on privacy grounds.
“I believe I can make a real contribution,” he said.
King said that he had been in Nice in July when more than 80 people were mowed down by a lorry in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
“I saw for myself the devastating aftermath of the attack … which killed so many people, injured many more and traumatised Europe,” King told MEPs, speaking in French.
King, who has worked for the UK government in Northern Ireland, recalled a series of terrorist atrocities over the 15 years since the 9/11 attacks on the United States which had exacted a deadly toll and required joint action to counter.
“In today’s world, security of one member state is the security of all,” he said. “National security remains the sole responsibility of member states. But they cannot address alone threats which are transnational,” he added.
Timothy Kirkhope MEP, European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group spokesman on home affairs, hailed the "strong performance" of Sir Julian King at the hearing:
“Sir Julian had a very strong job interview before the committee, showing that he already knows the brief very well.
I was impressed that most of Sir Julian's answers focused on offering tangible support for intelligence sharing and police cooperation today, not abstract new structures that might be created in the distant future.
It’s clear that being the UK Commissioner will not be a walk in the park, but Sir Julian was right to say that the UK has played, and will continue to play, a major role in European security and intelligence cooperation even after we leave the EU. The ECR group will discuss Sir Julian’s performance tomorrow night, and I will be recommending we support him in Thursday’s confirmation vote.”
The Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the second largest political group in the European Parliament, said it was "generally positive about the new UK Commissioner Julian King's performance and grasp of the Security Union portfolio".
“Security is a vital issue for Europe and we need a clear strategy to fight terrorism, organised crime and extremist violence. For us it was important that today’s hearing focused on Julian King’s ability to perform the role at hand, not on questions regarding Brexit or the UK’s new relationship with the EU," said S&D spokesperson for Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, Birgit Sippel.
“We are pleased with the Commissioner-in-waiting’s reassurances that fundamental rights need to be at the heart of an effective security strategy. Europe needs a clear, evidence based approach not knee-jerk responses that restrict fundamental freedoms while failing to provide additional security.
“We are also pleased that Julian King confirmed a comprehensive review of all existing EU security measures would take place. This is something we have long called for so that we can assess what works well, where there are shortcomings and where legislation has not been implemented effectively by Member States.
“Overall he gave a professional performance and showed a good grasp of the subjects at hand.”
Green justice and home affairs spokesman Jan Philipp Albrecht MEP was also positive about King's performance.
"I clearly welcome that the European Commission is making security and the fight against terrorism a priority. The horrible attacks exemplified that a European cooperation in security policies is overdue. Julian King must use this opportunity to present sustainable solutions, instead of yet another placebo proposal. We need security policies based on reasonable suspicion instead of mass surveillance. Julian King must take this as his starting point and provide solutions."
Jonathan Hill, the UK Commissioner in charge of financial services, announced his resignation on 25 June, following Britain's shock decision to leave the EU in a referendum held two days before.
In a statement, Hill said he did not believe it was right for him to carry on with his work “as though nothing had happened,” adding he will stay for a period of weeks to ensure an orderly handover.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, said he accepted Hill’s resignation “with great regret” and appointed Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis to replace him.
Hill’s position in Brussels had become untenable, with pressure mounting on him to be sidelined following Britain’s decision to withdraw from the European Union in a referendum last Thursday.
- 14 September: MEPs vote on whether to confirm King.