The UK bagged a great Commission portfolio, now it must deliver

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Jonathan Hill, The UK's commissioner. [UK Perm Rep]

Jonathan Hill’s appointment to an influential portfolio provides an opportunity for the UK to work for the British people who see reform and change in the EU, not defeat and exit, as the real prize, writes Peter Wilding.

Peter Wilding is the director of British Influence, which campaigns to keep the UK in the EU. 

A dud, a fiasco, a damp squib. These were just some of the epithets naysayers used in the past few weeks to characterise the likely outcome of the allocation of jobs in the new European Commission when it came to the UK’s commissioner Jonathan Hill.

Lord Hill was called everything from an “arch-federalist” to a “rabid Eurosceptic” as well as “dull”, “boring”, “a nobody”, and an “unknown”. Nigel Farage was adamant that he could not get a serious job because, in his warped view, the UK is hated and sidelined in Europe.

Others spent the summer talking Britain’s chances down, backed by their conviction that the UK has no influence with its allies at all. At best Lord Who should be happy to get the job of commissioner for paper-clips, they said. And how the establishment chortled.

Despite this hopeless, self-defeating negativity, what happened instead is that the new European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, a man with whom David Cameron certainly did not play his cards right, put Hill in charge of the newly created portfolio for financial stability, financial services and capital markets union, saying Britain is a vital player, key to Europe’s success. Farage scowled. Any UK success is a failure for him.

Britain’s achievement came as Juncker unveiled a revamped European Commission with seven powerful vice-presidents, or super-commissioners, who will be steering and coordinating the work of a number of commissioners in key policy areas. One such vice-president (the Netherlands’ Anglophile Frans Timmermans) will be Juncker’s right-hand man and act, for the very first time, as a dedicated red tape tsar, guaranteeing that “every Commission proposal is truly required and that the aims cannot best be achieved by member states”.

Good news

This is very good news indeed in three distinct ways.

Firstly, given the importance of the City and financial services in general to our economy, this portfolio must reassure critics and doubters about Britain’s ability to protect its financial sector in the coming years and steer Europe towards the necessary reforms in this field, including the creation of a capital markets union.

Secondly, the wider restructuring of the Commission demonstrates that Jean-Claude Juncker, who has been called every name under the sun by the Europhobic commentariat, means to uphold the EU leaders’ Strategic Agenda as agreed back in June and focus on growth. The Commission now looks better equipped to deal with the economic challenges that face the EU with a team centred on creating competitiveness, job creation, a broader and deeper single market, more effective decision-making and greater accountability.

Britain’s main European allies, the countries which share our desire for a more prosperous, more effective, reformed Europe, have been put in charge of portfolios which are critical to the pursuit of these reforms. Aside from a top Dutchman in charge of cutting red tape, we have an Estonian in charge of the digital single market, a Pole in charge of the internal market, a Finn in charge of competition and a Swede in charge of trade.

Thirdly, the announcement is a body blow to the cynics and the defeatists whose lack of ambition has dominated the European debate in this country since the European Parliament elections in May and for too many years before. It shows that British influence in the EU is real and can deliver results if we choose to engage. We do have allies, they want us to stay in, they share our desire for reform and they believe in most of our goals for reform. There is ample scope and space to negotiate with them so that we all get a better Europe.

Flying pigs

But this influence will wane if, instead of grabbing the Strategic Agenda with both hands and pressing for timetables and deliverables, our beleaguered diplomats are sent on kamikaze missions to deliver flying pigs and golden unicorns.

This is not to say that the news about Lord Hill’s portfolio pleased everyone. The portfolio which would have been “disastrous” for us not to get is already a “meaningless bribe” to some people at the overexcited yet terminally depressed end of the Twittersphere.

The drastic loss of influence which was predicted was turned on its head. Britain won’t be able to influence policy though Hill after all, write some, after a Wikipedia crash course on EU affairs, as commissioners “don’t represent their countries”.

But you cannot have it both ways: either these jobs don’t matter and therefore no slight on Britain would be implied with a relatively unimportant portfolio, or they do confer prestige on the countries of the holders, in which case this is a great victory for Britain. If Hill got the paperclips portfolio, do you think the europhobes would shrug with indifference? Of course not.

This is an important moment for the UK but it is even more important for the wider EU. The restructuring of the Commission to place an emphasis on action to develop economic growth is a real move forward. The UK must seize this opportunity to make a reality of its own reform agenda and work for the vast majority of British people who see reform and change in the EU, not defeat and exit, as the real prize.

British Influence

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