By way of setting the scene, I’ve been asked many times in the last few days whether Parliament is ‘gunning for’ Lord Hill, or indeed any of the other candidates. Really this is the wrong question. Yes, our hearings are always rigorous, with tough questions asked and straight answers demanded. But our aim is not to play bad-cop in some kind of faux political theatre. It’s to check their aptitude for the job, of course, but also to get them to explain and defend their policy priorities, and where necessary, require them to make commitments in response to areas of concern. Only once we’ve scrutinised all their responses will we be able to judge whether the proposed Commission is fit for purpose.
We’ve already raised serious concerns with the Maltese nominee about the future of illegal bird-hunting, and with the Lithuanian nominee about the bewildering shift of pharmaceutical issues from the health to the enterprise portfolio. Outstanding issues remain over the Hungarian candidate, nominated for civil liberties responsibilities, given his closeness to a controversial prime minister not exactly renowned for respecting fundamental rights. Similarly, we’re not entirely delighted that the Spaniard in line for the energy portfolio was previously a major shareholder in the oil industry [free registration required for that article]. In all these areas and others, there are definite questions to be answered.
And what of Lord Hill? It’s fair to say that he won’t get an easy ride either. Many colleagues are wary of a British Conservative, close to the City of London, being put in charge of financial regulation. One potential line of attack may have been blunted with the report that Juncker has already switched responsibility for the cap on bankers’ bonuses away from Hill’s portfolio — bearing in mind that UK Conservatives continue to oppose this cap, even though it enjoys wide popularity. But there are plenty of other areas where colleagues will want to press home difficult questions about how he plans to handle sensitive issues in the industry.
On the other hand, Hill is certainly not a headbanging pro-Brexit eurosceptic like some of the other high-profile Tories who’ve been making a name for themselves in recent days. Rather, he is an intelligent and reasonable individual with plenty of experience at negotiation and alliance-building. And given that the UK currently has a Conservative government, the nominee is bound to be a Conservative of some kind. We could have done a lot worse.
Officially, Parliament will vote to approve or reject the Commission as a whole. But this is very far from a mere formality. The European Parliament has been cross-examining candidates in this way for nearly two decades, and the process has frequently resulted in changes to the proposed line-up of Commissioners. Policy areas have been reshuffled, portfolios have been swapped, and more than once a candidate has been rejected outright, sending the relevant national government scurrying back to the drawing board to submit a replacement.
Will this happen again? Watch this space!