Don’t Expect Miracles from Commissioner Hill
In 2004 Peter Mandelson nagged and nagged me as Europe Minister about when Tony Blair would name him as EU Commissioner and bring to an end his tedium of finger twiddling on the back benches.
I warned Peter not to get over-excited about the job. ‘You won’t have much power. You’ll have to navigate through two dozen national trade priorities from statist protectionism in France to fanatical free traders in Sweden. You will spend your time tired travelling from city to city, staying in boring hotels, making technical speeches to boring people without any decent gossip to exchange.’
And as soon as he could Lord Mandelson came back to London politics. Despite immense political skills he achieved nothing as EU Trade Commissioner just as today’s trade commissioner, an obscure Belgian, is not making any real progress on the much vaunted US-EU transatlantic trade deal, TTIP. It is not hisfault but the US Congress is not going to give up trade barriers and preference for US firms any more than we will let US global behemoths buy up the NHS or the BBC.
So the idea that Britain’s new EU Commissioner, Jonathan Hill, is a kind of Harry Potter who will do battle with the Lord Voldemorts of the EU is far-fetched. It is a perfectly sensible appointment as Lord Hill has wielded the oil can in the engine room of British politics and everyone in the Lords says he is a go-along, get-along kind of chap who finds solutions rather than sharpens confrontations.
There are half a dozen top EU Commission jobs that he can aspire to and even with all the bad blood, now drying but still visible, between David Cameron and Jean-Claude Juncker as long as Britain is in the EU it has the right like France or Germany to ask and obtain a major post.
But an EU Commissioner is not a national ambassador for a Eurosceptic agenda back home. Lord Hill will have to swear an oath to uphold EU treaties and ‘not to take instructions from any Government.’ So the idea that Lord Hill can take order from David Cameron to rush out as a champion of EU reform are naïve, even if desirable.
He will be in his silo surrounded by a multi-lingual, multi-national cabinet of staffers with endless papers to see and sign off. Commissioners barely see or even know each other, especially if new boys and girls.
The reformed Europe that many want will require political networking and alliance building as well as trades and deals in a manner that has not been Britain’s forte since Tony Blair left office.
As Lord Hill settles into his new job – whatever it is – in November just as the moules-frites season opens in Brussels he will have plenty of work and given his qualities will do it well. But the idea he can be the spearhead of solving the Conservative Party’s difficulties with Europe and be the man who avoids Brexit is a fantasy.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister of Europe.