Why Cameron should send Foreign Secretary Hague to Brussels
Reforming European Commission is now key task
by Denis MacShane
Thu 3 Jul 2014
The dust is settling over the at times surreal row about the designated president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has hauled up a flag of truce in Downing Street by phoning Juncker to congratulate him.
Juncker, in turn, insists that he wants to do all to keep Britain in the European Union (EU) despite the passions of many in British politics and the press for Brexit – Britain exiting the EU. This message is repeated by Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, who now reveals the obvious: the existence of euro area Europe, with its own rules and structures, means that the EU will have to accommodate those European nations that cannot or will not join the single currency.
Matteo Renzi, prime minister of Italy, who has just taken over the presidency of the EU, told the European parliament: ‘Europe would not be Europe without the UK.’
In Berlin, Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, says Britain leaving the EU is ‘unthinkable’. David Cameron can respond to these overtures with one important act – appointing a high quality EU Commissioner from Britain. And by arguing for a reform of the Commission, so that it begins to win back lost prestige and lost support.
The temptation will be for Cameron to use the Commission – as many heads of government do – to reward a party loyalist who has no ministerial future back home. For a body often denounced in the populist media as ‘unelected bureaucrats’, the Commission is actually stuffed full of very experienced politicians who have won or lost many elections over a lifetime in national politics.
This is no bad thing as political ‘fingerspitzgefühl’ is essential as commissioners decide on the proposals put up by the technocratic staff. Finding the right person in Britain is not easy. Britain’s best commissioner was the businessman, Lord Cockfield, sent by Margaret Thatcher to push forward the Single European Act. But Lord Cockfield was sailing with the wind as Jacques Delors, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand and the Iron Lady herself all shared a common vision of European integration in the mid-1980s.
Cameron has a few discarded Conservative politicians he could send and the House of Lords is full of unelected placemen and -women who could move with ease to an unelected post in Brussels. A dramatic choice would be William Hague, the foreign secretary. He was leader of the Conservative Party in 1997 when it embraced fully eurosceptic ideology.
Hague now understands from working with the US and grappling with the rise of China and the aggression of Russia that a UK outside the EU would a global irrelevance. He is a forceful minister and persuasive communicator. Perhaps this eurosceptic poacher could become the gamekeeper who keeps Britain in the EU.
More important than the individual name is the need to reshape the Commission. The 28 commissioners are four times the size of the Swiss Federal Council, half as a big again as the US cabinet and sprawl like an octopus with 28 legs over Brussels decision-making.
An influential group of former senior Commission officials and lawyers, called the Friends of the European Commission, is arguing for the Commission to be shaped into just five clusters headed by five vice presidents under Juncker to meet every week and take the core decisions. They suggest two commissioners should work exclusively reporting to national parliaments as Europe’s 10,000 national parliamentarians sense they are excluded from EU policy and decision-making. This is one of the big contributory factors to the rise of eurosceptic votes.
In pure theory, under the Lisbon Treaty, the Commission should be reduced to two-thirds of the 28-strong Commission by 2019. This is not politically realistic as no nation will give up its right to a commissioner.
So bringing together commissioners into teams may be the best way forward.
Having wasted a massive amount of political capital against Juncker, Cameron can emerge as the advocate of a reformed, leaner, more focused Commission doing what matters to make the EU economy grow, become more competitive and create jobs.
Denis MacShane, a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, is a former Minister for Europe.
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