UK's new EU commissioner needs 'strong portfolio'

Written by Glenis Willmott MEP on 25 July 2014 in News
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In order to 'drive forward change' at EU level, the UK's incoming commissioner must have a 'major economic brief', says Glenis Willmott.

The deal is done. Jean-Claude Juncker is the next European commission president. End of debate. What matters now is, how we as Labour MEPs work with him the British prime minister's relationship with him, and the position the next UK commissioner gets.

The UK needs a commissioner with a strong portfolio, to drive forward change and ensure Europe works better for Britain. What it doesn't need is a blind adherent to the repatriation agenda, whereby employment rights, for example, are 'repatriated' to the UK, enabling a UK Conservative government to scale back and strip away everything from maternity rights and the right to paid leave, to equal treatment for agency workers.

This would be the worst possible answer to voter concerns about the undercutting of workers' wages and employment terms and conditions.

Peter Mandelson and Catherine Ashton, Britain's last two commissioners, both held major posts, and it is vital this trend continues with Lord Hill, that we have a major economic brief to drive growth, securing the change Europe needs.

Indeed, in his statement responding to his nomination, Lord Hill described "spreading growth and jobs across Europe" as one of the EU's "two great challenges", alongside "how to strengthen public support" for the union.

He talked the talk on reform; on working with Jean-Claude Juncker, member states and the parliament; and on Britain's interests being best served by playing a "leading role" in the EU. On this we must take him at his word, and hope he can effect real change, strengthening our position, not weakening it by drifting along on the sidelines and withdrawing from the heart of Europe, leading to an ever greater loss of influence in the EU.

"Lord Hill needs to show he is an intelligent, astute political operator prepared to stand-up to the increasingly Eurosceptic Tory backbenches and work in the wider interest"

Unlike the UK prime minister David Cameron, however, Lord Hill needs to show he is an intelligent, astute political operator prepared to stand-up to the increasingly Eurosceptic Tory backbenches and work in the wider interest. He must also be open about his business dealings to ensure there are no conflicts of interest, and he has made a good start by selling off his shares in a public relations and lobbying groups.

In addition to negotiating a key portfolio, the prime minister must urgently address the UK's wider loss of influence in the commission. New figures this week showed a rapid decline in the number of British nationals working in policy roles in the European commission, from 9.6 per cent in 2004 to 5.3 per cent in 2014, with 121 staff leaving in 2011 alone. The number of UK nationals on the staff of the European commission fell by 24 per cent from 2005-13.

"The UK makes up 12.5 per cent of the EU population, but only 4.6 per cent of European commission staff - France, with a comparable population, has 9.7 per cent"

Britons represent only 3.5 per cent of staff in the single market directorate, with not a single graduate of the government's EU fast stream joining the commission; the UK makes up 12.5 per cent of the EU population, but only 4.6 per cent of European commission staff - France, with a comparable population, has 9.7 per cent.

The government needs to encourage British citizens to take up roles in the EU institutions. The current debate in the UK doesn't encourage that, but good people in the institutions can help set the culture that is good for Britain.

At the end of his five-year term, Lord Hill says he wants to be able to tell the people of Europe the commission "has heeded their concerns and changed the EU for the better". It is in all our interests that he be proved right.

About the author

Glenis Willmott is an S&D group MEP for the UK Labour Party

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